The Slovenians – who come from an actual country called Slovenia – were out in full force Friday for a pivotal group game at Joburg’s Ellis Park against the U.S. of fucking A. I was determined to make a big day of this, my only match of the tournament, and for the first time all week the weather gods decided to cooperate. It was a clear, mild afternoon; despite the fact that I’d brought along more layers than a wedding cake, I made it through the day wearing nothing but a long-sleeved shirt, my Bafana Bafana jersey – and, of course, a Stars-and-Stripes draped across my shoulders. This is one of the more impractical bits of fan-style you’ll find at international sporting events. Every time you line up at the pisser or need to fart away your second boerewors roll, you have to worry about desecrating the flag that your forefathers died for.
Which didn’t deter us in the least. The enthusiasm and patriotic fervor at Ellis Park were as high as the prices. I have to say this about FIFA: they suck. Really, the way they bullied South Africa during the build-up to this tournament would make me want to wish all sorts of harm onto Sepp Blatter, were it not for the fact that the vengeful gods had already preemptively cursed him with the name Sepp Blatter. But I have to grudgingly admit that the guys throw a mean Fan Park. Never mind the gaudy prices – R30 for a 330ml bottle of Bud! – and the fact that you had to retreat to the toilets to find a few square inches not plastered with advertising. Ultimately, there were enough diversions and free-flowing booze to ensure that the build-up to the match was practically the day’s main event.
There were Americans in full-on Uncle Sam regalia and Mexicans in sombreros and a fusty old Englishman decked out like King James – tempted, perhaps, to reclaim the colonies once the game was through. There were Germans in lederhosen and Frenchmen carrying baguettes over their shoulders. (I might have made that last bit up.) There were two Croatians showing their Slavic solidarity with both the Slovenians and the Serbians (who were playing Germany in the early match on the big screen), and a couple of Chinese guys dressed like dragons. It was an encyclopedic assemblage of cultural stereotypes, united in our desire to cheer on our nations and hook up with foreign chicks. It was a proud day to be a citizen of the world.
And prouder still to be a citizen of the U.S. of America, a nation whose women are known the world over for taking out their tits at the slightest provocation. This being a high-profile sporting event, three American girls in short-shorts and bikini tops paraded around with patriotic platitudes scribbled across their nubile tummies. It was safe to say these young patriots did not come with their parents. The girls proved second in popularity only to the topless, 300-pound Slovenian, whose hirsute back – reminiscent of basement carpeting – afforded many fine photo ops. (This man, it turned out, was the CEO of Slovenia’s National Tourism Board, whose official slogan is, “Slovenia! More hair than you remember!”) However things played out on the pitch later in the day, it was clear that in the all-important showdown of sluttily dressed girls, the U.S. was outpacing Slovenia by a considerable margin.
I lodged a few complaints over this fact with a contingent of middle-aged Slovenian men, who sort of gave the impression that the good times in Ljubljana started with the fall of Tito and haven’t eased up since. They were full of Slavic wisdom; one clapped me on the shoulder and rattled off an aphorism that might have once graced the back of a 100-dinar note: “If you go to Venice, you don’t bring your own pigeons.” This stroke of brilliance struck me as almost Confucian. While FIFA didn’t miss much in the way of marketing opportunities, surely they dropped the Jabulani by not issuing a “FIFA 2010 World Cup Guide to International Promiscuity.” (Which isn’t to say soccer’s organizing body was oblivious to the event’s randiness: boxes of Choice condoms were on proud display above every sink in the men’s room.)
I admired these Slovenians, with their ruddy faces and hairy backs and inspired slogans like, “USA! USA! USA but not today!” Caught up in the spirit of things, I commented to one man that if Americans knew how much fun were their Slovenian brethren, we might not keep confusing the place with Slovakia. He took this as high praise indeed. Another, egged on by my cheeky comment about the weather in Bratislava, showed off his country’s famous wit by responding, “I do not know. I have never been to Bratislava.”
There were signs of tension, too. When I wished one man good luck before predicting a 3-1 American triumph, he growled, “I hope the USA fucks today.” (That the verb “fuck” should be equated with poor performance is an unfortunate commentary on the state of affairs in the smallest nation to join the FIFA 2010 World Cup.) But his snarling response was an exception to the general rule, which stated that for an afternoon – if only one afternoon – it was not only okay but encouraged to hug shirtless Slavs and take pictures of random guys in lederhosen and high-five dudes coming out of the men’s room.
Partly the high mood on Friday owed to the fact that Americans don’t feel threatened by countries they can’t find on a map. Unless you pointed your nukes at us at some point between the Truman and Reagan administrations, we as a nation refuse to take you seriously. Most of the Americans in the crowd, I’m sure, weren’t convinced that Slovenia was an actual country until they started playing the national anthem. It was sort of like how you always knew the Washington Generals weren’t really a team when they lined up to play the Harlem Globetrotters. Now and then I could spot a few Americans in the crowd looking at their Slovenian neighbors, flashing a sly wink, and saying, “Come on, really? Really?”
But Slovenia is, in fact, an actual country, with an actual football team that, for 45 minutes on Friday, kicked us around the pitch. It was a grim first half for the Americans, with a geriatric performance from our backline and a sinking suspicion that we were 45 minutes away from turning our attention to 2014. Coach Bradley clearly hadn’t conferred with the Slovenians before the tournament: instead of bringing his proud American eagles to South Africa, he seemed to bring a bunch of pigeons. With beer and toilet queues resembling Cold War-era bread lines in Sarajevo, it seemed as if the day – which started off on such a high note – would end with even more Slovenian men taking off their shirts and singing militant odes to the Fatherland.
Only the Americans came out in the second half in inspired form, as if to remind the world, “Hey, remember the Internet? We invented it!” Just minutes after the re-start, the ageless Landon Donovan struck a terrific goal to bring us one back; and less than ten minutes from time, after a frenetic flurry of attacking football at both ends of the pitch, a crisp finish by Michael Bradley brought the Americans on level terms. The term “manic” would not be inappropriate here. Around the stadium – a sea of red, white and fuck-yeah Yankee blue – American fists pumped in the air, flags gallantly streamed in the twilight’s last gleaming, and just about everyone knew they had an excellent shot at getting laid before the night was through. Minutes later, when second-half substitute Maurice Edu put a corner kick into the back of the net – completing what appeared to be a miraculous comeback for the Yanks – I had perhaps the finest sporting moment of my life, gratefully shared with the little Peruvian dude next to me, who, FYI, could bearhug like you wouldn’t believe.
Like Communism and print journalism, though, it couldn’t possibly last. Confused moments on the pitch; a scrum around the soon-to-be-vilified official; downtrodden American players jogging toward midfield. The goal was disallowed, though it took some minutes for those of us chanting “USA! USA! USA!” in section U67 to recognize that fact. It is the funny thing about live sporting events: you often have not a fucking clue what’s going on in front of you. This is probably a good thing, because had any of us realized what a high holy reaming we’d gotten from Malian referee Koman Coulibaly, we might have stormed the pitch like a bunch of drunken Englishmen. As such we were left scratching our heads, grateful for an improbable comeback which, though soured by the phantom foul, put us in an enviable position: controlling our fate ahead of the final group game, against Algeria.
It was expected to be a three-team bandwagon for me this World Cup, but after another clunker by England on Friday night and South Africa’s meltdown against Uruguay earlier in the week, it looks like the Americans might be my best shot for football magic here in 2010. Even the rest of the six African squads – five, if you don’t really count Algeria – have proven to be a terrible disappointment. Cameroon, unable to convert their chances in front of goal against Denmark Saturday night, were the first team to be sent home from FIFA 2010, with two losses in as many games. Nigeria, leveled by an inexplicable red card against Greece last week, are also winless; they’ll need a win against a tough South Korean squad to go through. Ghana – so promising after winning their opener – incredibly conceded a goal to a ten-man Australian team that, despite playing most of the match a man down, wrung a draw out of the Africans. Ghana now face the unenviable task of needing points from a showdown with Germany to advance. Côte d’Ivoire – perhaps the strongest of the African sides in the tournament – had an uphill climb from the start, placed in the “Group of Death” with Brazil and Portugal. After securing a hard-earned point in a 0-0 draw with Portugal, the Ivorians were samba’d off the pitch last night in Soccer City, where the Brazilians – aided by some dubious officiating and incredible finishing – put another dent in the continent’s World Cup dreams. (I’m sure we’re all united in our hopes that the Algerians stink up the pitch in Pretoria on Wednesday, with the Americans needing a win to advance.)
I don’t find this all terrifically surprising. Much was made of the fact that this is “Africa’s World Cup,” and I suppose that on some level, playing on South African soil could have given some added inspiration to the African nations. But for all the rabid support of South African fans, the African teams left their staunchest supporters behind for 2010. Between the high cost of travel and the various ticketing fiascos with FIFA, most Ghanaians and Cameroonians are watching this World Cup from their couches, like the rest of the world.
More importantly, there’s the simple matter of tactical football (or lack thereof). I’ll leave it to the pundits to pile on with their usual criticisms of “undisciplined” African squads, but the fact is that absent-minded defense, poor finishing, and some shockingly bad decisions have led to the dreadful specter of a second round in the 2010 World Cup without a single African squad. In twelve matches so far, the six African teams have combined to score a total of six goals. As an Ivorian man put it to me last week, watching his country’s scoreless draw with Portugal: “You have a woman, you must make a baby. You cannot say, ‘She is always on top.’ You cannot make excuses.
“You cannot say the referees. You cannot say the vuvuzelas. You must score goals.”