National flags fluttered in the wind, a local tenor sang the national anthems, fans mingled in the stands and government ministers jostled to be seen on TV.
On the pitch, the players exchanged nervous glances as they walked out holding hands with their young escorts. South Africa: tall, fit and watched over by their fellow inmates. England: overweight, sunburnt and slightly hungover.
The location was the Zonderwater Correctional Center and the teams were some aging England fans v the offenders.
“It is a dream that happened for us today,” Pieter Boshof, who has been in prison for 16 years, told Reuters.
“Everybody has been speculating would it happen. Everybody spoke about it in prison. Everybody has had sleepless nights.”
The match was organized by the British High Commission, the Department of Correctional Services and crime prevention group Khulisa in a push to bring the World Cup spirit into the prison.
“Can you feel it?” one member of the offenders team shouted as he was led off the bus. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time. This is the World Cup.”
They were given a pre-match speech by a fellow inmate who told them to apologize for any bad tackles
The England fans, who had their own physiotherapist, stretchers by the sideline and much taping on their knees, ranged in age from 11 to over 50.
“We’ve played all over the world,” David ‘Chopper’ Hancock told Reuters. “It does seem, however, that when we play we’re all fat and 40 and most of the teams we play are rather young and very fit.
“These guys are in prison, so they must be able to train every day. We’ve all got jobs and had a few beers last night.”
When the match kicked off, those England fans not playing opted to sit among the rest of the prisoners in the seats, mingling their colors of red and white with the prison uniform of orange with CORRECTIONS written from top to toe.
“There are 1,300 prisoners in this part of the prison, so the top 11 are very good,” one warden told the visiting fans, as he cheered on the offenders.
In the game of 25 minutes a side, played on a hard, dry pitch, England took the lead after one of their younger players chipped the goalkeeper.
The offenders then scored twice, prompting much celebration, before England leveled, thanks to some supportive refereeing by a local warden.
Both sets of players then hugged and posed for pictures.
“Our football brain isn’t bad and we can hold our own but when they decided to run we were in trouble,” 50-year-old fan Ian Hart told Reuters.
“But isn’t football great? I never thought I’d see the day when I played football in Soweto or in a prison.
“But we’ve done it and it’s been great.”