ORLANDO SET FOR BLUE TIDE
THE new Orlando Stadium, where the Bulls will take on the Crusaders from New Zealand in the Super 14 semifinals on Saturday, is a far cry from the original stadium.
One wonders how much the players and their followers who will make the trek to Soweto know about the historical significance of that original building and the area it is situated in.
Originally owned by a mining company, the site was a disused mine dump and was sold to the Johannesburg City Council in 1950 for £15000, with an additional £22000 raised by the community and businesses over a period of a year to assist with construction.
It took nine years to build and was officially opened on April 17 1959. One of those involved in raising the money was a developer in the area, a Mr Young, and old-timers of Orlando still refer to the stadium as Youngsfield.
"The original grandstand was a triple decker that seated 900 people. There was also a cycle track and an athletics track," Jacques Grobbelaar tells me as we look out from one of the suites on to the magnificent pitch and stadium.
Grobbelaar is an expert when it comes to sports stadiums and their management.
Executive chairperson of Stadium Manager South Africa, his company has the responsibility of running Orlando Stadium, Dobsonville Stadium, Rand Stadium and the imposing 2010 World Cup venue Soccer City.
He's travelled the world studying and looking at how best to run a stadium, but it's the history of South African soccer that he is passionate about.
"In 2006 the old stadium was earmarked as a World Cup training ground, but to bring it in line with Fifa specifications would have been impossible, so it was demolished and work began on the new one. We were given three years to complete it and it was done in two years," Grobbelaar says.
"And in those two years we didn't lose one day through strikes of any sort."
The final cost of the stadium was around R300million, which, according to Grobbelaar, is a bargain.
"If you look overseas at, say, Wembley Stadium, which is the same size as Soccer City, it cost them R180000 a seat to build. Here at Orlando Stadium we have built a world-class stadium to Fifa specifications for R7000 a seat.
"It just goes to show how innovative we South Africans can be, and is testament to a great, great project," he enthused.
But its not just building a stadium that is expensive, it's the maintenance. Grobbelaar insists Orlando Stadium is one of the cheaper stadiums in the country to maintain, but you are still looking at about R600000 a month in running costs. Soccer City, he says, is in the region of R1,9million a month.
And it is these costs that had Finance Minister Pravan Gordhan getting hot under the collar last week. Gordhan said stadiums must start paying their own way and would not be getting any more money from the government. Grobbelaar and his team realise this and have been proactive.
"Its not easy to turn a stadium into a profitable entity. You have to be innovative. Over the last six months we have had 37 sporting events at Orlando Stadium. Besides that we do stadium tours, product launches, exhibitions and corporate functions."
The stadium itself is hi-tech, with state-of-the-art equipment. So what can Bulls supporters expect on Saturday which, for many, will be their first trip to Soweto?
"What they are going to find is certainly not what they were expecting. There is still a perception that Orlando Stadium is some dilapidated little stadium in Soweto.
"What we have, though, is a First World stadium built to Fifa specifications and a brilliant pitch that can compete with any stadium in the country. Even the Bulls guys say it is better than Loftus.
"The Bulls supporters will be bringing atmosphere with them but you can feel the soul inside this stadium.
"We will be bringing together 70 years of soccer history on this particular site, combined with more than 100 years of rugby tradition - putting them together and making history on that day.
"The residents of Soweto will welcome the Bulls with open arms... communities will fly flags on that day... I believe Orlando East will be blue."
"I don't know anything about rugby and I have never attended their matches, but I will be the first person at the stadium on Saturday," said Thabo Nkosi of Mapetla.
So why does Grobbelaar think the Bulls chose Orlando Stadium for their semifinal and hopefully final matches?
"They had the choice of three stadiums and Barend van Graan (Blue Bulls CEO) said this was the best deal," he said.
Does he think there was any sentiment in the choice?
"At the end of the day it's always a financial decision," Grobbelaar says matter of factly.
Which is why this will probably be the first and last time a Super 14 semifinal or final will be played at this particular stadium.
It all comes down to numbers. Orlando Stadium can seat only 40000 spectators, whereas somewhere like Soccer City can comfortably seat 98000, which means more than double the gate takings.
As he says, it's a financial decision, but if Grobbelaar has his way, it certainly won't be the last time big-time rugby is played in Soweto.
"This stadium lends itself to Vodacom Cup games, the Boks playing smaller rugby-playing nations, warm-up fixtures for next year's Super 14. In fact, I'm convinced that this will be the first of many rugby games in Soweto and the Springboks will play an international here within the next year," he says.
Now, that would really be something.
l The Bulls, defending Super 14 champions and arguably the best provincial team in world rugby, will be at Orlando Stadium tomorrow at 11.30am preparing for their semifinal showdown with the Crusaders, and the training session is open to the public, free of charge.
Tickets for Saturday's match go on sale today at Computicket for R250.