Through some fortuitous timing on my part, and the benevolence of my wonderful wife, I was able to spend a large part of our recent honeymoon in South Africa…for the 2010 World Cup! Since arriving back Stateside, I’ve attempted to settle back into a life devoid of 24/7 football and the sweet hum of the vuvuzela. In reflecting on our trip, I wanted to share a few impressions and musings from our experience, the football portion, of course.
My wife and I arrived in Johannesburg from London the day of the US/England match. As soon as we set foot in the OR Tambo Airport, we were greeted with the sight of colorful FIFA World Cup signage and booths hawking the latest World Cup gear and novelties. The first question we were asked in customs was whether we were there for “the football.” During our ride from the airport to our temporary residence in JoBurg, our driver was eager to discuss the World Cup; even while admitting he was more of a rugby fan. He impressed upon us, as hosts of the World Cup, the casual South African soccer fan had been transformed into a full-fledged fanatic for the duration of the World Cup.
Our first match was the Netherlands blanking Denmark 2-0 at the Soccer City stadium. The build up to the match was incredible. While the traffic was thick en route Soccer City, the cast of characters entering the stadium was entertaining to say the least. There were busloads of Danish supporters furiously waving their country’s flags. This only spurred the Dutch fans walking beside the buses to reply with a frenetic chorus of vuvuzelas and their own flag waving. Particularly amusing were the fans who had indulged in a few pints too many, and with no other option, were forced to handle their business on the side of the road. All of this before we made it within a mile of Soccer City. One of the cool sights along the way was seeing the level of entrepreneurial spirit exhibited by the vendors stationed along the path to stadium. While you would expect the standard vuvuzela, replica soccer ball, or t- shirt, you could also find numerous national team specific wares, specifically targeted to the fans of the day’s match. This day, it was all Denmark or Netherlands, from the flags being sold, to the pallets of face paint made available for willing patrons to have their nation’s flag painted on their person; all for a few South African Rand, of course. Right before entering the stadium you could even pick up a pair of earplugs, just in case you wanted to drown out one of those recently purchased vuvuzelas.
While on the subject, a note about the vuvuzela. There has been much made about the annoying nature of the instrument, and although I can sympathize with the unsavory hum while viewing at home, the vuvuzela is actually much less intrusive when present in the and around the stadium. Much of the vuvuzela blowing is done in call and response fashion, and unless someone is blowing one right into your ear, you can pick up the musicality and interplay of the sounds much better in person. Unfortunately, when you have 85,000 people all doing their own personal call and response, the interplay is lost in a cacophony of sound, thus the steady humming buzz you hear during broadcasts. I found the vuvuzela to be a unique addition to my experience…that being said, the random vuvuzela blowing outside of my window at 3 am was a tad annoying. One final note on the vuvuzela, one of the funniest signs that I saw during my time in South Africa was a sign at the entrance of a shopping mall imploring people to please refrain from blowing vuvuzelas while on mall property. Never mind that just about every sporting goods store and novelty shop within the mall had vuvuzelas for sale. Again, the reach of World Cup fever is bigger than just the stadiums that host the games.
Our second match, Brazil/Ivory Coast, had an even more festive atmosphere than the Denmark/Netherlands build up. The vuvuzelas were joined by drums and outlandish costumes. We saw an Ivory Coast fan decked out as an elephant, faux elephant tusks and all, only to be rivaled by a Brazilian fan with fake four foot arms protruding from his Brazilian jersey. There were joyful odes to Maicon and Luis Fabiano from the bus drop off point to the front gate of the stadium. The crowd cheered every challenge and every corner. One surreal portion of the match was Kaka’s sending-off for his second yellow card. Without TV commentary, I’d venture to say the crowd didn’t know exactly what had happened, other than the fact that it was a bad situation. The confusion on the pitch did little to quell the lively atmosphere in the stands. When Didier Drogba scored the lone Ivory Coast goal, you would have thought that Ivory Coast had just advanced to the next round of the tournament the way the fans celebrated in their eye catching bright orange parka jackets. While the final score line wasn’t indicative of a close game, the experience was still a memorable one, so much so that my wife claimed herself Brazilian for the evening (that’s not her on top of the celebratory pile though).
As much as I would have enjoyed having tickets to every match for the in-person experience, I realized that this wasn’t a reality; I was on my honeymoon after all. Luckily, for matches for which we didn’t have tickets, the atmosphere in the many fan parks (we attended one in Cape Town that was set up to have the feel of a giant pub under a tent) was electric. One of the more memorable moments was watching the South Africa/Uruguay match in one of the fan parks in Cape Town. While South Africa’s performance on the day was far from their best, hearing the fans sing the National Anthem of South Africa was incredible. For a nation with a bitter history of apartheid and racial segregation, the unified singing and the shared passion for the country’s national soccer team expressed a sense of pride that was inspiring. As often as I’ve listened to my own country’s national anthem, during the World Cup, I came to view the singing of each national anthem as more than a routine precursor to the sporting action about to unfold. Each anthem announced of a team, a country, its people. Truly magical.
When our time in South African had come to a close, I was definitely sad to leave, in part because I was leaving behind a beautiful country with friendly people, but also because the reality set in that once I was back home, and at work, I wouldn’t be able to freely watch and talk about the games all day. Thank goodness for fond memories and ESPN3.