Well Worn

It may just be an old football shirt, faded and fraying. But it holds on to its memories, even when the time is right for a substitution.

bafana_bafana_tshirt_1

He stands at the corner of Republic and Judges, his arms outstretched, burdened like a statue of Justice by the wares of his trade.

Children’s toys, sun-visors, wire baubles, lace anti-insect umbrellas dotted with pretty little beads.

I see him but I don’t see him, and I reach in the Joburg way for my cellphone, pretending to busy myself before the robot winks to green.

Then he is tapping at my window, and I glance to the right to see his hand balled into a fist. I hit the slider and the barrier between us is gone, and I reach out to bump my fist against his. A moment of connection at an intersection.

He asks me what I thought of that goal the other night, and whether it should have been allowed. What goal? What game? What is he talking about?

I can feel the moment slipping away, but I manage to save it just in time. That was some crazy goal, I say, and he nods and laughs. He is talking football, I think, and here comes the pitch.

“You need a new one,” he says. “A nice new one for CAF.”He leans in, sizing me up. “Xtra-large, my man?” I’m still battling to catch his drift.

Then it strikes me, as sharp and clear as a referee’s whistle. I am wearing the colours.

I whipped the shirt out of the wash this morning and pulled it over my head, just as I’ve done so many times over the last couple of years, particularly on Fridays.

I remember wearing it around the boardroom tables, and in the traffic, and at the airport and in the malls, and everywhere you looked there would be others in their colours, the shirts hanging limp like frocks, or tented over paunches.

We were a motley bunch, young and old, men, women and children, but  we were a team.

Some of us, if you put us to the test, if you asked us who the midfielder played for when he wasn’t playing for the nation, or if you just asked us to clarify the offside rule without Googling, well, we would have laughed and said we weren’t experts; we were enthusiasts.

But you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference by looking at what we wore.

We embraced an ideal, we wrapped it around us, we held it fast to our hearts in non-scratch nylon.

I remember one night, sitting high up in the stands, the rasp of vuvuzelas all around. And somewhere further back, the galloping of the djembe drums, faster and faster, louder and louder.

Then a weave and a charge way down below, and we rose to our feet as one, and the metal rattled and the stars shook in the sky. I was wearing my shirt.

But over time, the shirt that you wear, begins to wear itself. The yellow, as bright as the sun, fades to an off-wheat, and the name of your team has streaks shot through it, like the static on a screen.

The flag on your shoulder is chipped and peeling, and the thread on your V-neck is running. You need a new shirt.

You hold on to the old one because it holds on to its memories, and you wear it like a second skin. And sometimes,even on a Football Friday, you momentarily forget that you are wearing it.

So here is Oscar, my man – we are on name-terms now, and the robot is still red – trying to interest me in a new shirt for the Africa Cup of Nations, the real deal, the new style, only R250, all right, make it R200, okay, okay, a hundred and fifty…braaarppp!

The robot is green, and the guy behind me is pumping his hooter in the Joburg way. I pull onto the verge, and Oscar sprints to the fence where his stock hangs on hangers. (He also sells hangers.)

The shirt looks good, bright and new, and as I take it in my hands, I flatter myself that it may be a size too big.

But that doesn’t matter now, because the games are about to start all over again. And for sentimental reasons, and for old time’s sake, I’m glad that I’m still on the team.

*This first appeared in Sports Illustrated South Africa.

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