Johannesburg - For the sceptical few – and I might have to own up here – Barcelona’s quick visit to South Africa to play Mamelodi Sundowns in the Mandela Centenary Cup match seemed a little bit of a bum deal for the hosts.
Club owner Patrice Motsepe reportedly paid R45 million for the event, a sum that could tide a small rugby team over for a year, Lionel Messi – the man everyone wanted to see – only came on in the 74th minute, and Downs coach Pitso Mosimane issued a pre-match instruction not to tackle the visitors hard for fear of another Thabang Molefe-David Beckham injury ahead of this year’s World Cup.
What’s more, some people even complained about the fact that the Abafana Bestyle (the stylish boys, one of Sundowns’ many nicknames) players had to slum it on standard plastic chairs, while the Barca boys sat on plush red seats on the bench.
But when a football writing former colleague of mine told me how much The Brazilians (another Downs nickname) gained from hosting the match, it was enough for me to get envious on rugby’s behalf.
Apparently, the club got a return of at least R100 million in attendance (tickets ranged from R40 in the cheap seats to R5 000 in the suites at the packed, 90 000-seater FNB Stadium), broadcasting rights and advertising revenue, with more knock-on effects of hosting such a massive club still to fully kick in.
The game was billed as the domestic champions playing against La Liga champions, so it would be nice if rugby organised something similar, what with the conjecture created by the northern hemisphere teams closing the gap on their southern counterparts in playing terms.
It would be nice to see this year’s Super Rugby champions (insert New Zealand team of choice here) and newly crowned European champions Leinster duke it out to settle the blowhards once and for all at a neutral venue where the two teams would share the revenue.
Another idea would be to have a small tournament of eight featuring the champions of regional competitions from places such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, South Africa, France, New Zealand and Australia in the format of soccer’s world club football championships, with appearance money guaranteed for turning up and good money paid for performing well.
The obvious weakness of coming up with such a tournament would be player welfare because, unlike soccer, rugby has become a series of head-on collisions disguised as hits. But with rugby World Cups four years apart, it would be nice to keep the north vs south rivalry theme bubbling under with at least an annual game between the best of both hemispheres.
It’s a match that would not only settle the bragging rights aspects, it would also help spread the riches brought about by the strength of the European currencies and give the players and fans something different to look forward to, instead of the Super Rugby staple we’re constantly exposed to (and for that read getting annihilated by New Zealand sides and being cheated by their referees).
Of course, the money would be a massive incentive to make the match happen in the financial climate in which rugby currently finds itself. A sign that there is a fair bit of money in Europe is the alphabet soup that is becoming of their European championships (think European Champions Rugby, European Challenge Cup and Pro14).
And the thing about European competitions is that winning something comes with money, whereas in the southern hemisphere, the teams are playing for a trophy and hopefully the spin-offs of being champions of a competition that sometimes feels like it’s been driven beyond its saturation point.
The easiest way to make this happen would be to finally pull off that old idea that’s gathering dust in a folder at World Rugby – a global season. A global season is why Sundowns can play Barcelona in mid-season – they might have little in common, but they’re playing the same season.
The reason given in the past is that sponsors are married to the dates of their tournaments, but is rugby prepared to watch itself go broke just because the sharpest minds in its midst can’t come to an agreement over scheduling?
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