Excavating American soccer fields, uncovering buried layers of sport

Editor’s note

This essay by Martha Saavedra (see 20 Sept 07) affirms that all sporting terrain has a history, both personal and corporate. Organizers of the 2010 World Cup discovered this when developing the site of Green Point Stadium in Cape Town. Football grounds offer testimonies buried in sediment and memory. “The flight of the players / counter-weighted / shifting through a century” is how Bridget Carson, in “Soccer Fields, Fort Missoula,” starts poetic meditation on open recreation space—once a World War II internment camp—in Montana (in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer, 56–57).

Archaeology played a key role in the controversy surrounding Green Point, which hosts a semifinal on Jul 6. The area is known to have been a burial ground for slaves and the poor during Dutch occupation. Of the layers of Cape Town’s past, South African archaeologist Nick Shepherd writes, “To dig down from the surface is to encounter wall footings, occupation floors, the debris of past societies, the remains of the dead themselves." This scenario unfolded in 2003 when developers of luxury condominiums on Prestwich Street in Green Point unearthed human remains. Up to 2,000 bodies, identified as former slaves, were exhumed amid intense community debate that resulted in establishment of Prestwich Memorial, where the remains are stored. Many believe that gentrification and development, including the new stadium, are erasing the history of mixed-race slave descendants known as “Cape Coloured.”

The Green Point Stadium Visitor Centre offers a one-man multimedia presentation, Greensman, that positions the new stadium as reconciliation—a combination of historical strands to make a gathering place for all people. The visitor center director herself lived next to Green Point Common before her family was forcibly removed as part of apartheid-era relocations.

Football has a history at Green Point dating to the 19th century, chronicled in the 2008 District Six Museum exhibit “Fields of Play” and short film. Dozens of amateur football matches in leagues organized, even before apartheid, along racial lines could occur simultaneously on the 200-acre common. The area became whites-only under apartheid. Football was exported to Cape Flats, well beyond the center city. The original 18,000-capacity Green Point Stadium, developed during the second Anglo-Boer War, was demolished in 2007 to make way for the new.

South Bowie Boys and Girls Club soccer team at Blacksox Field, 1978 (© Peter Bicevkis)

by Martha Saavedra

At least once a year I visit my parents’ home in Maryland, in Prince George’s County, where I lived in the 1970s. I visit to visit, but also because Prince George’s County is adjacent to Washington, D.C., and I regularly have business there. When “home,” I take advantage of new bike paths and go for runs through what used to be forests, farms and the soccer fields my team practiced and played on. In this area, each year, more homes are built, new shopping centers go up and roads are widened or appear where there had never been any before.

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