World Cup Fever (n.) – A condition of the head and heart experienced every four years by some two billion people. Symptoms include rabid chest-pounding, incessant flag waving, the wearing of funny hats, and the search for promiscuous sex with nationals of 31 other countries. Common treatments include silly dances and frequent medication of at least 80 proof. Patients should be allowed to let the fever run its course for one month (see also, World Cup Hangover).
You might have noticed by now that the thing they call the World Cup began this weekend in South Africa. After six years of head-shaking and hand-wringing over this country’s readiness, the tournament kicked off without a hitch – unless, that is, you’re English goalkeeper Robert Green, whose boneheadedness in front of the goal allowed a very valiant American squad to earn a point in Rustenburg on Saturday night.
The build-up to this month-long lovefest of country and the beautiful game reached a fever pitch at about 15:59h local time on Friday, before the host nation and Mexico took the field for the opening match. I was in Newtown’s Mary Fitzgerald Square, properly kitted out in the yellow and green of Bafana Bafana, along with a few thousand other rabid fans. Flags flying, feet stomping, vuvuzelas blaring, it made you forget everything that’s been ailing this young, post-apartheid nation in recent months. If only for an afternoon (and one long, drunken evening), you really could believe in the redemptive spirit of sport to lift a nation.
This is no small thing for South Africa, as it lurches along on its uncertain path into the 21st century. I’ve blogged before about the economic malaise facing this nation, the disillusionment with an ANC government that has failed to live up to its post-apartheid promise, the old racial wounds that have reopened in recent months. There are fears, too, that the xenophobic attacks which cast such an ugly pall over this nation two years ago will return after FIFA packs its bags and heads back to Geneva. This is a time for joy and hope in South Africa, but it’s a time for some sober reflection, too. The World Cup lasts for one glorious month, but South Africans will still have to find a way to live together when it’s finished.
Nic Dawes, writing in the Mail & Guardian newspaper on Friday, reminded his countrymen that ”Bafana jerseys are not a message we send to the national team; they are a message we send to one another.” And in sounding a word of caution about the work that remains ahead for this fragile nation, he urged his countrymen to
make our engagement with all that is wonderful and awful about the tournament a monument to South Africa that is more lasting than any stadium – and we yell ourselves hoarse for the country that we are trying to dream into being.
There is also the small matter of football – or soccer, as we Yanks like to call it – of which the opening weekend provided some memorable moments. Bafana Bafana’s first goal on Friday afternoon was no doubt the shot heard from Cairo to Cape Town – a brilliant strike which sent Mary Fitzgerald Square into a frenzy of songs, hugs, and diski dances. (A close second for the afternoon’s most jubilant celebration: the ovation when the offside flag was raised against Mexico, nullifying a first-half goal.) Not even a late equalizer by Mexico or a Bafana shot striking the post in the 90th minute could ruin the mood; for hours afterward, Newtown was exactly the sort of drunken, joyful scene that this host nation was hoping for. Bafana might have been soundly outplayed for the first 45 minutes, but when the boys found their legs, they ran like springboks. (As a friend noted, Bafana tend to run on Africa time: they don’t usually show up till the first goal is scored.) With two remaining group games against France and Uruguay – who played to a listless 0-0 draw on Friday night – the door is open for Bafana to find its way into the second round.
It was a mixed weekend for Africa, perhaps only redeemed with a Ghanaian win on Sunday. After Bafana’s draw, which seemed to leave many South Africans grousing for the two points lost, Nigeria was outplayed by a very game Argentinean side – only some heroic keeping for Nigeria kept the final score close, at 1-0. The Nigerians couldn’t find the net, despite some promising attacks; neither could the Algerians, who, a man down after some terrible mental lapses, conceded a late goal to Slovenia on the second biggest bit of boneheaded goalkeeping in the tournament so far. It was up to Ghana, who were awarded a late penalty after a handball in the box in the 84th minute, to provide some catharsis for this eager continent. Asamoah Gyan’s brilliantly struck penalty gave Ghana a 1-0 win, earned them three points in what was expected to be a tough Group D, and allowed all of Africa to breathe a sigh of relief, after its first win of the tournament.
The Black Stars’ toughest competition in the group stages will come from the Germans, whose 4-0 drubbing of Australia’s Socceroos sent a stern warning to the football world that the Germans, as ever, can’t be underestimated. The group is worth following for American soccer fans: should we make it to the knock-out stages, our opponent will be one of the group’s top two finishers. Ironists might find it worth noting that it was the Germans who sent us packing in 2002, ending a surprising American run to the quarterfinals; and the Ghanaians who did the same in 2006, chasing us out in the group stages.
The Greeks, meanwhile, to the chagrin of my forefathers, seemed to drag their country’s doldrums to South Africa with them, after a 2-0 waxing by South Korea. The fit Korean squad vigorously pushed the pace, and could have netted one or two more. The Greeks, on the other hand, proved that it was all downhill since they invented democracy.
In Rustenburg, meanwhile, trans-Atlantic bragging rights were at stake during the U.S. and England’s much-hyped and long-awaited opening match on Saturday night. This game has more or less had the American soccer world licking its chops since last December, when the draw was first announced, with Americans hoping to equal our historic (and practically pre-historic) 1-0 upset of En-guh-land sixty years ago. I’ll admit that I, like many American fans of the sport, had divided loyalties going into the game. Most of the diehard American soccer fans I know are passionate supporters of English Premier League clubs and the English national team; we were as upset with Wayne Rooney’s ill-advised red card against Portugal in ’06 as with the Americans’ lackluster showing in the group stages. And I, after all, first gained my love of the sport during my year abroad in Manchester – a year that coincided with the rise of England’s so-called “Golden Generation.” Names like Beckham, Lampard, Gerard, Rooney, Scholes, et al., are to my soccer memory what names like Gooden, Strawberry, Hernandez and Mookie are to my baseball childhood. When the curtain drops on this most promising generation of English footballers in decades, a part of my soccer-loving heart will also retire from the game, only to be dusted off on nostalgic nights in some country pub in Glastonburyshire twenty years hence.
All that turned to horseshit when the Stars and Stripes were paraded onto the pitch at Rustenburg. Suddenly, the 2-2 draw I’d been hoping for these past few weeks went the way of David Beckham’s knees. I wanted Royal Bafokeng Stadium to earn a place beside the Falklands in English lore. I wanted Rooney’s red face to spontaneously combust. I wanted Lampard to miss another penalty – maybe a bunch of them. Sure, I still wanted England to advance – but not until after we’d dusted the pitch with them.
It was, for the Americans, an inauspicious start – a defensive breakdown, a crisp Gerard finish, and a 1-0 score line just four minutes in. Memories of ’06 – when a Czech goal in the opening minutes of our opening match more or less put an end to America’s World Cup dreams – came rushing back. All my worst World Cup fears were going to be realized. Rattled nerves. An English stampede toward goal. Not a single drunk American chick flashing her tits in Mary Fitzgerald Square.
Only something amazing happened: the Americans regained their poise, tightened the defense (more or less: we were caught out on a number of occasions), and spent the next 86 minutes going toe to toe with one of the favorites in this year’s tournament. After that disastrous slip-up by Green in front of goal, letting a very optimistic try from 25 yards out get by, the unthinkable became thinkable: we might really win the damn thing.
Well, we didn’t. But there’s no shame in taking a point from England in what will hopefully prove to be our toughest group match. Tim Howard earned his stripes in the American net. Jozy Altidore ran riot in the English defense. The Gooch gobbled up everything that came his way. After 90 frenetic, back-and-forth minutes – the most exciting end-to-end action in the tournament so far – the U.S. proved that it might finally be ready to justify its perennially inflated FIFA ranking.
And Mary Fitzgerald Square, on a cold, windy night, was behind the Americans. I was surprised by this fact; during my travels in Africa, where the Premier League is closely followed, the English national team enjoyed a dedicated following. Given the English roots of so many South Africans, I would’ve expected the same here. But South Africa, unlike Kenya or Uganda or Tanzania, still has bitter sports rivalries with the English, in rugby and cricket. (My housemate Ryan – himself of English blood – has professed his hatred for the English team.) And so with the wind gusting in Newtown, and me trying to stomp the life into my feet, a few hundred South Africans were stomping and cheering for the U.S. of A, too.
So were the Americans – at least, a few of them. There was a blond, apple-cheeked family who barely made it through the first half. And a trio of Mexican-Americans, fully kitted out in Mexico’s green, who were stomping and screaming alongside me. They came by way of Dallas and St. Louis, and they were great fun. The only thing to interrupt their full-blooded support of the U.S. were the eager South Africans who wanted to take pictures with actual Mexicans in the flesh. (This typically meant a drunk guy with a camera looking, blinking his eyes, and saying, “Hey, Mexican!”) A few college-age American males also drifted around the periphery, leering at girls and looking, like most college-age American males, like they’d flown across the Atlantic with a carry-on full of condoms and roofies.
So the World Cup is off to a cracking start. Ahead is a nervous week for the Americans. With little Slovenia (actual slogan: “Never judge greatness by size”) finding itself at the top of Group C, the U.S. has it all to do this Friday in Ellis Park. This, incidentally, will be the one and only World Cup match for which I’ve scored a ticket. After our inspired showing in Rustenburg, I will be out in my full, jingoistic, Stars-and-Stripes regalia. Already I’ve scored myself one of those stupid furry top hats for which the World Cup is known, patriotically decked out in red, white and blue. (Never mind that there was a Union Jack stitched to the top – nothing a pair of scissors couldn’t cure.) This week I’ll be picking up my Team USA hoody – or, at least, whatever cheap Chinese equivalent I can score downtown – and one or more vuvuzelas in red, white, or blue. And if I meet any Slovenians on the street, I’ll pump their hands warmly, wish them the best of luck in the spirit of fair play, then ask how’s the weather in Bratislava. Maybe I’ll even do my country proud by grabbing my crotch and saying, “Suck it, Slovakia!”
For the rest of the world, the bigger story will unfold in the next few days. Today the Dutch – perennial underachievers – kick off their title chase with an in-form squad that’s expected to go far; so, too, do the defending champions, Italy. Tomorrow two of the favorites, Spain and Brazil, will look to start their campaigns on the right foot. And then an emotional day on Wednesday, when Bafana Bafana look to secure a much-needed three points against Uruguay. With the country commemorating the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976 – a historic day in the struggle against apartheid – all eyes will be on the boys to carry this country into the second round. I expect this city to be an ecstatic sea of yellow and green all day long. And I, vuvuzela in hand, will be tooting my little heart out.
In Mary Fitzgerald on Saturday night I met a man named Vusi, a former soldier who had served for the South African army in Mozambique. He had with him a bucket full of soaps and sponges; like many soldiers he hadn’t been able to find steady work since leaving the army in 2004, and so he washed cars in Joburg, hoping to feed himself and his seven-year-old daughter. He had had a bad day – he’d only washed a single car – and so I bought him a boerewors roll while we listened to a band keeping the crowd warm between matches. Like so much of this city for these past few weeks, there was a carnival spirit in the air. Now and then Vusi would put down his bucket, scamper off to join a circle of revelers (“Make the circle bigger!”), do a little dance, and come back with a dumbstruck smile on his face. For years he had dreamed of a day like this. “When Nelson Mandela was freed, I said, ‘Some day, South Africa will change the world,’” he said to me. “And it is happening now.”
He told me more about his family and his life. The government had bought him a house in Mpumalanga, as part of his demobilization package, but there was no work there. And so when his wife died a few years ago, he came with his daughter to Joburg. But now there was no work here, either. A shadow passed across his eyes. Life, and life’s problems, couldn’t be put on hold, no matter how great the celebration. In a month this would all be over. Vusi looked at the dancers, then he smiled and sighed and shook his head.
“Why can’t we be like this all the time?”