SOUTH AFRICA – This is a country full of contrasts, where first world and third world rub together every day. In Soweto, an area called Diepkloof Extension is full of houses that wouldn’t seem out of place in Beverly Hills – but just down the hill are blocks of government-built housing that have no running water, and where the only electricity comes from car batteries. Many of the domestic workers, lawn mowers and other laborers who maintain Diepkloof’s pristine appearance live in this poor area, and trudge through the grass each morning to start work.
Life in South Africa is not monolithic, and the same can be said about the tournament it recently hosted. I discovered this summer that you can go to two World Cup games and have completely different experiences. My trek up to Rustenburg to see our boys of team USA take on England was hectic. We woke at daybreak and drove 500 km to Johannesburg, rushing to beat Joburg’s notoriously bad traffic, on the way to the stadium. The game was going to be my first ever professional match, excluding the semi-pro Minnesota Thunder games that I went to as a kid, where tickets cost $1 and I played soccer alongside the field. My ticket was waiting with a friend, who I needed to find en route to Rustenburg, somewhere along the main highway. The plan went as follows: drive over the huge dam, continue past a busy market on the left-hand side of the road, and find the sign for the elephant sanctuary. Wait and pray.
Difficulties connecting with my friend and signs that read “Danger: Hijacking Zone next 6 km,” meant that we eventually decided to meet at the stadium.
When driving to World Cup games, the best option for non-VIPs is the Park & Ride. You leave your car at a lot, far away from the stadium, and take a shuttle up to its entrance. Rustenburg’s version of this was a large grass field with a vague sense of rows and an even more elusive sense of order. Unable to navigate any further through the dense traffic of bodies and buses, our shuttle driver let us off a kilometer away from the stadium. We joined the mass of fans flowing down the dimly lit street.
After all the talk of the damage that thousands of vuvuzelas could wreak on our ears, I wasn’t surprised to see a group of boys hawking earplugs along the road – if they hadn’t undertaken that business venture, I certainly would have tried.
The confusion continued inside the stadium. The ushers, volunteers in bright green FIFA jackets, sent my friends and me back and forth to different levels of the park, refusing to allow us past so we could take our seats. We finally convinced/fought our way through in time to see Tim Howard jog off the field at the end of warm-ups.
The game itself was a messy affair. Team USA’s defense was lax, and the back line let Steven Gerrard through almost immediately to give England a 1-0 lead. Neither side managed to really dictate the style of the game, and Dempsey equalized towards the end of the first half, thanks to a horrible error by the England goalkeeper. The USA supporters jumped up and embraced each other, while Englishmen around us groaned.
It seems that Americans can think of no better cheer than “USA! USA!” repeated over and over – at least they shout it with pride. Our more inventive counterparts from England have a large repertoire of profane chants and songs, but to my disappointment they were drowned out by the vuvuzelas.
Neither the stadium scoreboard nor the clock was working, but it didn’t matter. The final score was England 1, USA 1, and the American players and fans seemed satisfied with that result. One player in particular was enjoying the limelight, grinning and waving back to the crowd while his more seasoned teammates tromped back to the locker room.
As my friends and I regrouped and went back to our car, our post-game high soon evaporated. The park & ride had just one exit, and with cars descending from all angles the going was slow and exasperating. Further ahead, an endless string of red taillights wound through the night. Luckily for me, I dozed through most of the traffic, only rousing myself enough to stumble inside and unroll my sleeping bag when we returned to Johannesburg. It was 4 AM. I lay down, hoping to get some rest before the next morning’s long drive home.
The match that took place on the following Saturday between the Netherlands and Japan, on the other hand, was well-organized, clean, and beautiful. Moses Mabhida is the most picturesque of the ten World Cup stadiums, with an elegance that Rustenburg lacks. It’s in Durban, where 80º F temperatures belie the fact that Africa is in the dead of winter.
Even chaperoning nine kids from the Mtuba Football Academy, the experience was easier and less stressful than going to the game the previous weekend. We parked, went through security, and found our seats without incident.
Around us, the stands began to fill with swathes of orange and blue as more spectators arrived, decked out in their country’s colors. It was easy to tell which team the marching band, sporting neon orange tuxedos, and the guys in full-body orange spandex, were supporting – the Oranje (a common nickname for the Dutch team) enjoyed the majority of the support that afternoon. Japanese fans wearing strange get-ups resembling large bowling pins milled around excitedly. As for the man in a gaudy oranje kimono, I’m still not sure exactly where his loyalties lie.
The teams played a calm, mid-afternoon game, in which the Dutch passed the ball around with ease and established a fairly laconic pace for the match.
Despite their differences, these games shared a sense of companionship that characterized the entire World Cup. In both matches, I was struck by the lack of animosity on the pitch and in the stands. Referees gave only a few yellow cards, since hard tackles and other displays of poor sportsmanship were rare. The England fans sitting next to me were good-natured, even managing to laugh off ‘keeper Robert Green’s mistake. And after the Netherlands v. Japan match ended, I joined a seaside soccer game on one of Durban’s beaches. Each side had a motley mix of players, ranging from graying Japanese doctors to small boys who had flown in from Spain. The sun set on a scene that would have been unlikely at any other time, but was becoming commonplace during the World Cup. All the hype about soccer bringing people together? It’s not just wishful thinking. It’s real.