The man in the middle


When you win, you love him and call him a ‘clever’. When you lose, you hate him and call him a donkey.


But win or lose, you know that without him, there is no game. He is the King. His word is final. He is the man in the middle!


He runs around flapping his hands and blowing his whistle. He is like a bird that is learning to fly. He is like a man whose pants are on fire.


Many of you have seen him in action. Some of you have even thrown apples and tomatoes at him, maybe even a bottle or two. His name is David ‘Bricks’ Nungu and he is…. a soccer referee.


Learn and Teach went to visit Bricks at his home in Rocklands Township in Bloemfontein. He opened his door carefully – and when he saw that we were not a bunch of angry fans after his blood, he let us in and told us his story.


Born on 24 August 1947 in Bloemfon­tein, Bricks was the only son in a family of six children. His father was a part-time house painter and his mother was a domestic worker.


In the Nungu family, there was plenty of love – but always a shortage of money. And so Bricks grew up like most other township boys -poor, street-wise and, of course, soccer mad.


FOUR-GOAL-DROP


“We used to organise ourselves into teams,” says Bricks. “Six or seven of us from one street would walk from street to street challenging the other youngsters to a match.


Four-goal-drop-match, was what we called it. The match ends as soon as one side has scored four goals. There was no time limit. The winners won themselves a tennis ball. If you won six or seven balls, it was a good day’s work.”


Bricks and his friends not only played soccer – they loved to go to the stadium to watch the big ‘ous’ play. But Bricks was different to most of the other fans. While they watched their heroes do all kinds of wonderful things with the ball, Bricks found himself watching the referee.


“I loved to watch a great ref by the name of Ntate Matambo,” says Bricks. “You see, I was a skinny kid. Old Matambo was also skinny – but he could tell all of the 22 players what to do and what not to do. He kept the game clean and fair. I liked that – and I dreamed of doing the same thing.”


When Bricks left school after standard nine, he played for a team called Hibenean. “Those guys used to beat up a referee every time we lost a game. So referees used to stay away from our games.”


He remembers one Sunday when the referee once again did not turn up. The teams stood around waiting to play. Bricks saw that without a referee, there is no game. And so Bricks did what he always wanted to do. He found a whistle and blew for the game to begin.


Bricks handled his first game well. There were no problems. But it wasn’t always going to be so easy.


THE PUNCHBAG


As a youngster, Bricks had seen many a referee running for dear life – it seemed that some fans loved chasing the referee as much as they loved to watch the game. Bricks’ time was soon to come.


The Black Bombers were known as referee bashers. Maybe the worst. Bricks was handling an important match for them. If they won, they would go to the first division. Everything was under control until Bricks gave the other team a penalty.


“I forget the name of the other team. When I gave that team the penalty, the Bombers agreed it was a fair one. The spot kick was taken and Bombers’s goalkeeper made a great save. But he did not hold onto the ball. He pushed it back into play. The ball landed at the feet of the same player and he banged it into the net.


“I knew the rules and I allowed the goal. If the ball hits the goalposts and goes back to the same player without being touched by any other player, it would not have been a goal. I tried to explain but it was useless.


“Man, was I beaten up that day. Everyone used my body as a punchbag. Even a drunkard who knew nothing about soccer pushed his fist into my face.


“Then through my cut eyes I saw some mad fans with knives in their hands. I thought, ‘Now this is the end. God I’m going to die.’ Luckily before they did anything with those blades, some people begged them to spare my life.”


Bricks was upset – not only because he was nearly killed, but because he was there doing the fans a favour. He was not supposed to handle that game. He had gone there to watch the game. When the referee did not turn up, he offered to take over so the game could go on. That day Bricks learned that soccer fans have a funny way of saying thank you!


“THE THREE STAR”


Then there was the game that no referee wanted to touch. For once Bricks was afraid of handling a game. Whatever team lost, someone was going to get hurt.


His friends said, “Come on, take the game. But Bricks said, “I’m not doing any thing like that”. Then one of them said, “Never mind, man. Let me lend you my Three Star and just get onto the field.”


So Bricks pocketed the knife, grabbed a whistle and trotted onto the field. The fans cheered loudly when they saw him. Many people knew nothing of the knife in his back pocket. The game went on – until the fans of the losing side walked onto the field and tried to spoil the match. But Bricks refused to give in to their plans. Then a big guy walked onto the field. He was a known thug.


Bricks carries on with the story: “I stopped the match for a while – I did not want to be stabbed in the back while I was watching the game. He was the kind of a guy who, once his knife is drawn, it never goes back into his pocket without first tasting blood. He was called The General’. Then to my horror I saw a knife in his hand – and he was heading straight for me. I felt scared. I knew I was cornered.”


“When he came up to me, I put my hand into my back pocket and the Three Star jumped into my hand. I flicked it open. Suddenly I felt calm. A confused look came over The General’s face. He pointed his knife in my face and said ‘Man, I just came to tell you to handle the game well.’ Then he walked back.”


Once Bricks reffed a match in Phahameng. He handled the game well and everybody was happy. Or so it seemed. When Bricks went home that night, danger was waiting.

It was 10 o’clock when he opened the gates of the house. The house was fenced in with a stop-nonsense wall.


When Bricks closed the gate, three people jumped out of the darkness. They had pangas and batons in their hands. Bricks jumped over the fence and ran towards the police station that was near his place. As he looked over his shoulder he saw his attackers running the other way. Like most people, they wanted nothing to do with the police.


A LOVE FOR THE GAME


When Bricks wasn’t running away from the fans, he attended referee courses, read magazines and studied referee charts. In 1971 he became a professional referee. Things looked brighter for Bricks. At least he was now getting paid to do something he loved.


In those days a referee was paid R25 for every game. (The National Soccer League now pays R100) But Bricks says, “We didn’t care much about money. It was the love of the game that made us go out there, sometimes risking our lives.”


Bricks says that the NSL is now trying to look after their referees. NSL security men fetch Bricks before a game and stay with him all the time. They even walk with him onto the soccer field and back to the dressing room when the game is over.


Bricks feels this makes the referee’s job much easier. Before, he would start worrying about fifteen minutes before the end of the game. Bricks says, “I could not watch the game properly. My only thought was how I would get home safely.”


Bricks often gets invited to “social do’s” like birthday parties and weddings. But most times he does not stay long because people do not leave him alone. “After two or three tots a guy will come up to me and say, ‘Hey Bricks, why did you allow the other team to beat us? You should behave like a homeboy. Where does your loyalty lie?'”


ON THE HOME FRONT


On the home front, Bricks’ family always watch the games on TV. Once the children got a shock. It was the time Bricks handled a game between Kaizer Chiefs and Moroka Swallows.


Bricks explains: “Kaizer Chiefs were ahead by three goals to one. Then the Swallows keeper grabbed a mid-air ball – and kicked a Chiefs player in the chest. When I gave a free kick to Chiefs, the Swallows’ supporters were not happy. They threw stones and bottles onto the field. Then I heard some loud bangs. Somebody fired a gun, about three times. I got a terrible fright – but so did my children, who were at home watching the TV.”


When Bricks arrived home, his family begged him to stop being a soccer referee. But after he thought the matter over, he told them that being a referee was a way of life with him.

“I told them that without soccer my life would be ruined. It is my food. It is my liquor. When other people go to shebeens and stokvels, I go to the stadium.”


His family understood and Bricks is still blowing the whistle. He is still there doing his best to keep the game clean and fair!

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