Though hardly a football enthusiast, The Economist's Africa correspondent heads to South Africa to "be a part of African history" and finds himself impressed ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
Speeding in a taxi between Parkhurst and Wits in Johannesburg on the evening of the World Cup Final, I find myself roused by the sheer beauty of the sky. Darkening cerulean blue above, a redness along the tree line. My window is down. How quickly the heat leaves the day on the veld. In Parkhurst, at a restaurant, I had asked a white waiter directions to Soccer City. "Ask a black," he said venomously.
The last football match I attended was Sparta Prague-Arsenal, ten years ago. I was surrounded by Czech lawyers and businessmen who made monkey chants whenever one of Arsenal's black players touched the ball. At first I thought I was imagining it. When I understood, I felt sick, left the game, and never went back. Until now.
The transfer buses to the stadium are lined up at Wits. There are only a few fans on my bus. The Dutch are staring quietly out of the window. Aside from their bright orange wigs, they look as absent as on the commute home in Rotterdam. The Spaniards simply look confused. Outside, Johannesburg has given itself over to the game. The streets are closed off. Police helicopters are hovering above. Soccer City is more beautiful close up than on television, like a shimmering descending flying saucer. I find myself moved to see such organisation, such professionalism, and so many material resources on the African continent. The final must be the most organised and complicated event in Africa's history.
The long walk from the buses to the stadium goes past hundreds of hawkers selling scarves and hats, vuvuzelas, footballs, hot dogs, biltong, and beer. Moving along the line there is a strange feeling of being in a dream, one resonant in details but which moves slowly and soundlessly. People are going towards the stadium but there are no chants, no tribalism, nothing you would expect of a football match of such consequence. There must be some half-way point between the thugs of Millwall or the besuited racists of Sparta Prague and this. Perhaps some of these fans are indifferent because the tickets have been given to them. Like mine, in fact. I buy the first warm scarf I can find and a woolly hat. "We don't have Spain," the lady says. Holland it is then, for William of Orange, 1974, Johan Cruyff, and Ajax in its pomp. Orange predominates anyway, with many blacks apparently supporting Holland, despite its vague associations with Afrikanerdom.
Football-wise, my heart went out of the World Cup when Uruguay beat Ghana. No matter how much guff Africans talk about a United States of Africa, bankrolled by Libya, it is true to say that the continent was, almost to a man, woman, and child, regardless of race or religion, rooting for Ghana to win that game. I can't help think the mood would be completely wild, a carnival, if an African team had made it to this final.
But I am here to be a part of African history. South Africa has performed like a champion. There have been few headlines about crime. No terrorist acts. President Jacob Zuma has been more than presentable and South Africa appears to have done a good job leveraging the World Cup for longer-term development. Still, it was telling how, at the "Africa 2.0" conference I had come to Johannesburg to attend, the otherwise superb South African government marketing team waffled when they talked about the rest of the continent. South Africa, with its motorways, shopping centres and nuclear power plant, has its eyes on the world, not on Malawi. That thought is rubbed in by the overflying of three Grippen fighters. The jet engines of the planes burn blue against the night sky. It is uplifting and demoralising at the same time: the countries I report on, the Congos and Somalias, are mostly incapable of putting anything more than a mortar in the air. It is not clear if the tournament will do much for the rest of Africa or even if it can be sensibly called an "African" World Cup. When South Africans say this, I sense that what they mean is that it has been a black World Cup, or a working-class World Cup.
Entering the stadium I have to stop and pause to imagine the hundreds of millions of Africans watching in their homes and their packed and sweaty video shacks. The moonshine being imbibed, the catalogue of African beers, African-branded cigarettes, the hookers even watching the screen not the customers. I can imagine the craziness of some of those places, like the slum bar in Kenya where an Oromo stabbed a Luo in the chest for blowing a vuvuzela in his ear and then was lynched by the other customers, all during the half-time interval. Here everything is curiously subdued, with only the Dutch fortifying themselves with trays of beer. It is the eye of the storm. That must be it.
There are 84,000 fans or so inside the stadium, but it still feels intimate. The man next to me is a black day labourer from the Eastern Cape. He won his ticket from a mobile phone company, he explains, nervously, as though in justification. The players are smaller than on television, Subbuteo figures, allowing for a more technical viewing, with the emphasis on the passage of the ball. It is a theatre, but with product placement. The television screens at either end are like giant iPods in the sky showing off Budweiser, Castrol, Coca Cola, of course, and even Aggreko, a company which supplies African countries with expensive electricity when their systems fail, as they often do.
"And now," says the announcer, "Fabio Cannavaro, carrying the World Cup trophy in a case designed by Louis Vuitton." The trophy is put on display and a spectator dashes across the pitch to try and pinch it. He is flattened, but the anarchist in me is on his side. Indeed, the only vital bit of atmosphere before the kick-off is when the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, is roundly booed.
It is five minutes into the game before the gravity of the sporting occasion sinks in. The World Cup final! But 20 minutes later a John Bull Englishman in a hoodie is nodding off. The game is dire; not total football but total refereeing. The players fold and writhe again like insects about to shed their wings. The cheating is curiously just as discernible up in the gods as watching on television—or at least so we convince ourselves. "Just disgusting," shouts John Bull, in a very plum voice, on seeing yet another dive. There are occasional chants of "Holland, Holland", nothing from the Spaniards. At half-time, queuing for the urinals, I am somehow heartened by the chanting of some English fans. "Piss in the sinks, piss in the sinks, everyone would move faster if we all pissed in the sinks."
My neighbour from the Eastern Cape nurses his single bottle of Coke through the second half. The temperature sinks closer to zero, my hands grow numb, yet vendors continue to do a brisk trade in choc-ices. I hang on until extra-time before finally submitting and buying a cup of hot chocolate, along with just about everyone else in our section. Spain scores. Mr Zuma hands over a block of gold, a first for him, some wag says, and the crowd disperses into the night.
Outside, I search for my ride. I have arranged a lift with the son of Steve Biko, a murdered anti-apartheid campaigner but we miss each other in the mob. In the end I am rescued by a young Afrikaner in a tiny pickup truck. He is a civil engineer, volunteering his services for the good of the nation. Has he been to any of the games? "Not one, man, but I tell you what, I am so very proud of our country tonight." I have learned three things this evening: South Africa is more than capable of hosting the biggest event in the world; it gets very cold in Johannesburg; footballers at a World Cup Final are invariably rubbish.
(This diary originally appeared on Baobab, a new blog about Africa on The Economist online.)
Picture credit: babasteve (via Flickr)