The feeling of dread was in the Rustenburg air on Saturday long before the Ghanaian team chased the Americans off the pitch. There was a listlessness to the city, a fundamental lacking of the sort of fever you’d expect on game day in the knock-out stages of the World Cup. Few were the Americans baring their pale, wintry midriffs; fewer still the chants of “Suck it, Ghana,” and “America! Fuck yeah!” that you would expect to fill the air like the drone of cicadas on a summer morning.
In Rustenburg, as in so much of South Africa, life revolves around the mall, and so it was only in that venerable shopping complex that the city’s lethargy was shaken off. Here were shoppers with a fresh spring in their step, united in their pursuit of quality goods at reasonable prices. The food court was full of fast-food chains and shitty Italian restaurants. The girls wore braces and jeans that exposed their bony little hips. Now and then you caught sight of a Landon Donovan jersey, or a pair of young American girls with flags painted onto their cheeks, but otherwise there was nothing inspired and noble in the air; you only felt the crass, fleeting pleasures of a day at the mall. It could’ve been any ol’ Saturday afternoon in any ol’ mid-sized South African city. Eating lunch with my travel companions at a restaurant of ambiguous Mediterranean provenance (which, FYI, delivered on its promise to spend 25 minutes preparing the tzatziki), we couldn’t help but check our tickets to make sure we were in the right place on the right day.
The sad reality was that most of the Americans who poured into Rustenburg two weeks ago, for our opening match against England, or who filled Ellis Park and Pretoria against Slovenia and Algeria, had apparently gone home after the knock-out stages. This seemed to be a damning indictment of American soccer passions, and a pointed rebuke to the many analysts who looked at our nail-biting progress into the second round as a watershed moment in the emergence of soccer as a major competitive sport in America. More on this later.
I was traveling to the game with a Pakistani CouchSurfer named Akram, and with Luke O’Brien, an American journalist who’s been reporting from the World Cup for Slate and the sports blog Deadspin. The absolute un-fervidness of Rustenburg was much commented on upon our arrival; in fact, due to some curious re-routing of roads on game day, most of the traffic in the city seemed to be flowing away from the stadium. It was a joyless start to a day that would ultimately be a referendum on just what the Cardiac Kids of Team USA had accomplished in South Africa 2010. (A lot, and a little, as it turned out, as Luke pointed out in his last dispatch.)
Rustenburg itself hardly rose to the occasion. The city is a dreary backwater where, I suspect, hope goes to die a quiet death. Many were the liquor stores we passed on our way to the stadium; many, too, the fast food joints and pawn shops. (On our way home, we drove past a wooden clapboard shack in a weed-strewn field, advertising the not unfair prices paid for gold and jewelry. Across the street was a KFC. Beside it, a small gas station where a nervous clerk fidgeted behind bullet-proof glass.) Imagine the U.S. winning the rights to the 2022 World Cup and choosing Gary, Indiana, as a host city. Luke reported that a large number of English fans had chosen Rustenburg as a base for their team’s World Cup campaign. It is not hard to imagine they spent two soul-sapping weeks holed up in their hotel rooms, staring blankly at the TV screen and dreaming of some quiet country pub.
(A not-unrelated factor contributing to the buzz kill at the stadium later in the day were the many Brits who bought tickets to the game, expecting In-ger-land to win Group C; likewise the Aussies who had hoped – perhaps a bit too optimistically – that they would finish second in Group D. This meant that many were the disconsolate souls hoping to recoup their losses, hawking tickets outside the stadium before the game. And many more were the fans who grudgingly filed in to take their overpriced seats, looking bitter and spiteful and pouring their scorn upon the pitch and really being dicks about the whole thing.)
The mood as we approached the stadium was grim and apocalyptic. Smoke filled the air – a consequence of the controlled bush fires burning around the area. A chopper circled above the stadium. Traffic cops and security guards hurriedly waved us through checkpoints. The whole thing reeked of a disaster flick before the extraterrestrial shit hit the fan. Even the sight of American flags gallantly flapping in the wind did little to dispel the sense of impending calamity. I imagined one of those flags heroically surviving whatever disaster lay ahead – a tattered pennant planted Iwo Jima-style in the center of the pitch, looking brave, solitary, and a little bit sad.
It was meant to be a day of heroics. The U.S. had advanced to the knock-out stages after Landon Donovan’s dramatic, extra-time goal against Algeria earlier in the week. It was, simply put, one of the greatest moments in American soccer history. Across the U.S., Americans who couldn’t tell a 4-4-2 from a 4, 5, 6 were running crazed through the streets; maternity wards were no doubt full of newborn Landons; even the brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange reportedly brought trading to a standstill after the last-gasp win. (Not entirely surprising, since most of the guys on the floor of the NYSE are so coked up they’d probably lose their shit over men’s figure skating). It was a remarkable moment, and a remarkable win. And if it allowed millions of Americans to gush and dream and wax patriotic and maybe even sell an incredibly stupid story to Time magazine, so be it. As South Africans will agree, the World Cup is a time for unrealistic hopes about middling teams. Looking at the draw ahead – a quarter which featured no-doubt worthy squads like Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea, but none of the tournament heavies like Argentina, Germany and Brazil – even I spent a few hours wondering how much blood I’d have to sell to make it to the semi-finals.
The hope didn’t last long in Rustenburg. The Americans again showed a knack for conceding early goals; as Jeffrey Marcus later pointed out in The New York Times: “Over 4 games and almost 400 minutes of soccer, the United States led for only three minutes, the final ticks of the clock against Algeria, in its only win.” This is no way to advance on the world’s biggest soccer stage. Though the team was again heroic in fighting back – netting an equalizer, and applying pressure throughout the second half – it continued to lack creativity in attack, and failed to finish in front of goal. The backline was again suspect; while the Ghanaian goals were both class finishes, it was defensive lapses that allowed them even to be attempted. As Luke pointed out after the game, on the long, sorry road back to Johannesburg, “The team wasn’t as good as we wanted to believe.”
[Disclaimer: I sort of hate the following paragraph, which has been much-reviled by the half-dozen or so people who actually read this blog. However, I felt, in the interests of historical veracity, that it would be a bit dishonest to delete it from the record; likewise, I thought it would be unfair to edit out the less-savory parts, since they’re the only way to make sense of some of the very critical comments that follow. I disagree with a lot of what I wrote here; and I certainly disagree with the tone, which basically makes me sound like a white-hating dickwad. The fact is that this paragraph does a great disservice to the kind, generous, overwhelmingly goodhearted (white) people I’ve met here in SA. As Ndumiso Ngcobo put it: Some of my best friends are white. Still, I think there is more to be discussed here, since the debate over African v. South African (and especially white South African) identity is a difficult and nuanced one, and says a lot about the very unique and complicated relationship this country has with the rest of the continent. If nothing else, it deserves more than just a pithy, one-paragraph – and, admittedly, disparaging – treatment in an otherwise lighthearted blog post. Try not to judge me as quickly and harshly from this paragraph as I, unfortunately, judged so many of my friends and neighbors.]
The Americans were squarely beaten on the pitch; and in the stands, too, we were outgunned. A few small sections of the stadium were full of actual Ghanaians; the greater share were South Africans, loudly cheering on the last of the African teams to remain in what was meant to be Africa’s World Cup. A large number of these Afrophiles were young and white, proudly waving the flag of a country that most wouldn’t visit if you put a gun to their heads, and seemingly embracing their newfound allegiances with an unabashed lack of irony. Never mind that most white South Africans have never ventured into the lawless lands north of the Limpopo – or that when they have, they describe it as “going to Africa.” Never mind, too, that I’ve encountered “African food,” “African languages,” and “African crafts” around Joburg, and that these have unambiguously referred to things that were, respectively, “black,” “black,” and “black.” In my two months in South Africa, I’ve found white South Africans to have a peculiar relationship with their ersatz African identity. It’s embraced fleetingly, and only to serve a particular (usually self-deprecating) end. To be African, for example, is to wait in a long bank queue and have shitty customer service and then joke to your neighbor with a sideways glance about “African time.” It is not living in a crowded shack in a crowded township with no water and no electricity. Nor is it supporting an extended family with the piecemeal work you find as a casual laborer, or sharing a small room with your wife and your newborn child and your brother who is dying of AIDS. It is a sort of eye-rolling self-effacement that is, perhaps, the only moral antidote to living a privileged life in a land full of desperate inequality. It is a very shallow belief that “we’re all in this together,” when in reality we’re not, not at all.
Which brings us back to Rustenburg, and those waving flags, and the delirious, fleeting cheers that hardly lasted past the final whistle. Only on our way to the parking lot did I meet some genuine Ghanaians, chanting their threadbare chants (“USA! USA! USA go away!”) and furiously texting friends in Accra. It was sweet, and poignant, and I was genuinely happy for them. As much as I wanted America’s World Cup ride to continue, I remain unconvinced by our nation’s commitment to the sport. It felt like the sorry turnout by American fans at the stadium in Rustenburg was part of the bigger story of what American soccer lacks. In Bloemfontein on Sunday, over the drone of the vuvuzelas, you could hear the Brits singing their hearts out; they would have sung all the way to the quarterfinals, too, had a German blitzkrieg – aided by the worst officiating gaffe of the tournament – not sent the Three Lions packing. The Argentines, too, weren’t likely to be heading back to Buenos Aires after the knockout stages. In the same way that Luke noted the American team wasn’t as good as we thought, I’m not sure Americans cared as much about the World Cup as we thought, either.
The problem is that American passions for soccer have a short shelf life. I’m not talking about the diehards – those soccer samaritans who fill the stands at MLS games and show their support for teams named after energy drinks. They were the ones who lingered bitterly in the cold of Rustenburg, evaluating the ranks of American club soccer, debating potential roster pics for Brazil 2014, and showing the sort of deep personnel knowledge and tactical intelligence that was both inspiring and kind of sad. They were the ones who will be sulking over South Africa 2010 for the next four years. The rest of us have gotten up, dusted off our backsides, and started booking our flights to Rio.
Which shouldn’t make us any less grateful for what our team accomplished. Though American soccer failed to make a convincing case that it belonged in the elite class of world football, alongside the Argentinas and Spains and Brazils, it was at times formidable, and always entertaining. The thrilling comeback against Slovenia provided, as I’ve already written, the single most memorable afternoon of live sports I’ve ever witnessed. And the goal against Algeria made anything seem possible. The team didn’t always play with world-class skill, and it was often – too often – tactically lacking, but it exhibited that most cherished of American sports values: it played with heart. Even in the waning seconds of the game in Rustenburg, you couldn’t help but imagine some last-gasp goal was on the way. Even for a country of soccer cynics, the team (for a little while, at least) made us believe. And sometimes, believing is all we have.