With the clock ticking until the World Cup kicks off this Friday in Joburg, the unfortunate stampede at a pre-tournament tune-up between Nigeria and North Korea yesterday couldn’t have come at a worse time. (Well, unless it happened at Soccer City this Friday night.) On some dark corner of the Interwebs or the FOX News Channel, I’m sure some beetle-browed pundit is spreading the contagion of Afro-pessimism like swine flu.
Of course, this isn’t surprising. The doubts over South Africa’s preparedness for the World Cup began almost as soon as it was awarded the tournament six years ago. Fears that the stadiums wouldn’t be ready; that a machete war would sweep across the Rainbow Nation; that al Qaeda would maybe, sort of, kind of consider attacking the tournament; that FIFA would have to activate “Plan B,” belatedly whisking the tournament to some more hospitable northern climes. Kicking South Africa like a Jabulani has more or less been a competitive sport for the foreign press these past few years. (This weekend, South Africa admirably kicked back. Take that, Europe!)
Yesterday’s stampede, which left at least 15 injured, was no doubt seen as some dark affirmation – and, perhaps, harbinger of things to come – for Afro-haters the world over. As David Smith reports in The Guardian,
all the old doubts could resurface after the trouble in Tembisa, a poor township in Johannesburg. Among the questions facing organisers is why the match was staged at Makhulong stadium, which only seats about 12,000 fans, rather than at one of the World Cup venues. Entry to the game was free – many more turned up to the match than capacity allowed.
Fingers are being pointed at FIFA for not anticipating the demand for free tickets in a city with a large Nigerian population.Neal Collins at Bleacher Report, meanwhile, reports that Nigeria “have been slightly tardy in their organising of friendlies, which is why all 8,000 tickets for [yesterday’s] game were issued free, causing the crush for entry.”
It is likely, of course, that this will have absolutely zero impact on the games that kick off on Friday. Though yesterday’s fiasco – in which large numbers of police failed to stem the mob’s tide – doesn’t say much for this country’s crowd-control apparatus, I expect things to go more smoothly at World Cup venues, where a) there’s a much greater seating capacity; and b) the tickets have already been sold. The bigger threat, I think, will come from long toilet queues and ear-bursting vuvuzela serenades.
On Saturday, I was treated to both at Bafana Bafana’s final World Cup tune-up, a 1-0 win over Denmark, in Pretoria. This was my first experience of soccer not played on some scruffy village pitch in Mozambique, or on a beach in Zanzibar, or on a street corner in Kenya; it was invigorating. Though the crowd, watches set to African time, didn’t fully roll in till the first half had expired, they were wildly animated throughout. It was, as I’d commented to a friend, like I’d gone to a party and a soccer match broke out. The vuvuzelas were trumpeting full-blast, like a chorus of flatulent elephants; the drums were beat like albino step-children; the songs were sung, and sung, and sung. At times, you had to wonder if anyone was even following the action on the pitch – until South Africa’s lone goal, late in the second half, sent the stadium into a frenzy. I’ve never been in a stadium that rocked quite like that stadium on Saturday afternoon (literally: a favorite South African pastime at soccer matches is, it seems, to rhythmically jump in one great, heaving motion with 10,000 of your neighbors – thank God for South African engineering!). On the way home, a street party had taken over Pretoria; everyone was mobbing the shebeens, singing in the streets, and generally giving a certain American writer a good foretaste of what the next month will have in store.
It’s been a long, winding road for this country as it prepares for the tournament, but finally, with a bit of elbow grease and some help from the North Koreans, South Africa gets its World Cup this week. Most likely it will not be a cure-all for what ails this country, nor the armageddon that the doomsayers of the British tabloids have predicted. As the columnist William Saunderson-Meyer wrote in the Mail & Guardian last month:
Dare one predict that the Soccer World Cup will be neither miracle-cure nor disaster? Just a marvellous sporting spectacle in an extraordinarily beautiful and hospitable country, enviously watched on television by half the globe.