Category Archives: sports

Cup of Contrast (a World Cup Flashback)

Night: Players from the English and American teams take the field, before singing their national anthems. (Amatruda/TYG)
And day: Bandana-clad fans from the Mtuba Football Academy at the Japan v. Netherlands match in Durban, SA. (Messing)

By Jake Amatruda

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.


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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 7: Madrid

Spanish fans watch the World Cup Final at the Plaza de Cibeles, where three giant screens were set up to show the game. (Bruner/TYG)

By Raisa Bruner

MADRID – Never underestimate La Furia Roja.

I can’t make any comments about the style, skill, or success of the Spanish national soccer team on the field in the World Cup final Sunday night against the Netherlands – I am neither an expert in soccer nor someone who was able to watch the game in full. I can’t tell you if Spain deserved to win, or if it was a fitting end to the month-long tournament, or even if the Netherlands played an honorable game. No, I’m not qualified to discuss any of that – because instead of watching the game and the athletes on the screen, I was gazing mesmerized at the crowd of crazed fans at Plaza de Cibeles in downtown Madrid.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to excite.

Sangria funneled down plastic vuvuzuelas into the open mouths of strangers? Sí. An army of red-and-yellow jerseyed fans, Spanish and Australian and American and any other nationality? Sí. Every face, arm, chest, and scalp striped with the red and yellow of the Spanish flag? Sí. Fist-pumping? Absolutamente. At Yale, we get into the spirit of The Game (Yale-Harvard football) and throw on a jersey for our favorite team’s turn in a championship. But in comparison to this experience, whatever sports fanaticism we have back home looks like little league. This much enthusiasm – however drunken – isn’t found every day. Spain’s supporters breathe, sweat, and bleed La Furia Roja.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to focus.

The crowd – which spread in a riotous, rowdy mass for miles throughout the center of Madrid – roared, chanted, vuvuzuela-ed, cheered, booed, sang, yelled, became borracho in unison. And that’s a big deal. To have the cultural power to take all of that energy and send it directly towards one event happening at the other end of the world is a pretty splendid feat. But soccer can do that for Spain. Soccer can take the Catalonians (a million of whom attended a separatist rally on Saturday, the day before the final) and the Basque (who also rallied in support of the Catalonians on Saturday) and the Andalusians and the Galicians and the countless other nationalities, ethnicities, and visitors living in and loving this land and bring them together in one very boisterous, very united movement towards victory. Impressive.

Definitely don’t underestimate the power of winning.

What recession? What unemployment? What sobriety? As we were swept up along with the partying crowd from Plaza de Cibeles toward Puerta del Sol, everything was in a jubilant uproar. Communist protests and workers’ strikes often stride the same route that we paraded down, yet instead of fighting against the concept of Spain, we were marching for it. At Sol, people clambered on top of statues, scaffolding, fountains, even the metro station’s glass roofing in hopes of surveying the scene. Swarming with people in all states of consciousness, the crowd only began to clear at around 5:00am when a man fell off the top of a monument and the police and ambulances arrived to deal with the consequences.

That morning I walked home, blowing my vuvuzuela the whole way. Each car that passed us cheered, even when the birds began to chirp. And now, a full workweek later? Spain isn’t going to sleep anytime soon. The players have arrived home in a wave of glory, the sun is out, the moon is bright, and the sangria is still cheap and flowing.

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The Summer of the Vuvuzela

Fans showing their World Cup spirit with the ubiquitous vuvuzelas.

By Jake Amatruda

It is the summer of the vuvuzela, and people are marching through the streets blowing those obnoxious plastic horns that seem to be a staple of South African fan craze. The vuvuzela has been around for the past decade, usually at matches between local soccer clubs like Orlando Pirates or Kaizer Chiefs, whose players and fans are mostly black. Historically, soccer was the “black” sport, while rugby and cricket were the domain of whites with Afrikaner or British ancestry. Soccer now seems to be gaining widespread popularity, in part because South Africa is hosting the World Cup, and people who a few years ago might not even have known if the national soccer team had a match are now donning Bafana’s bright yellow colors and piling into stadiums, bars and fan parks to cheer on their team. (Bafana Bafana means “the boys” in Zulu, and refers to the South African soccer team.)

The World Cup has disrupted the traditional racial hierarchy of sports in SA, at least temporarily bringing different populations of the country together. The finals of the Super 14 rugby tournament were displaced from the home side’s usual stadium, in use for World Cup matches between Spain and Chile (among others), to Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Formally known as the South West Township, Soweto is a black township (in)famous for Apartheid-era protests and violence.

Most of the white South Africans that I’ve met have never been inside Soweto because they are afraid of crime or they “have no reason to go there, really.” A lot of South Africans, irrespective of race, were surprised to hear that I had stayed there – even though I’m part Japanese, I am still seen as umlungu (the Zulu word for “white man”), a rare sight even today for the predominantly black Sowetan residents. I soon became used to the stares, greetings and cheers that I got on my morning runs. I was staying in Orlando West, a nice neighborhood that was ten minutes’ easy jog from the stadium where rugby came to play.

On the night of the Super 14 final, triumphant Blue Bulls supporters of all races trumpeted their vuvuzelas and embraced each other in the streets. I was surprised to see such a widespread racial mix of friends joining each other for drinks in the popular, but technically illegal, drinking houses called shebeens. The night passed without the muggings or other incidents that some had feared. By moving the rugby to Soweto and bringing a country together behind Bafana Bafana, the World Cup has achieved some Invictus-style reconciliation through sport. Sights during my time here remind me of scenes from the movie, which documents Nelson Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a fragile new nation in the wake of Apartheid.

Not everyone likes the vuvuzela – it disrupts communication amongst the players and coaches, drowns out the chants and songs that give a special atmosphere to European soccer matches, and will probably lead to hearing loss like the kind that our parents are starting to experience as a result of a few too many rock concerts in their youths. Still, it adds a distinctive character to the 19th iteration of the World Cup. The vuvuzela is unique to South Africa, and it seems unfair to begrudge the hosts bringing a bit of South African style to the tournament. I figured that I’d like join in the fun as well, so I got a vuvuzela of my own, and I can blast away with the rest of the chorus.

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 6: Madrid

The Spanish public celebrates Wednesday's game. (Bruner/TYG)

MADRID — This city is in the center of Spain. Puerta del Sol, a wide open plaza featuring not one but two fountains, is in the center of Madrid. And on the biggest billboard around Sol, overlooking the throngs of flip-flopped tourists licking ice cream cones, a massive message of fútbol and nationalism is displayed on a Nike ad featuring members of the Spanish team: ES NUESTRO AÑO. SERÁ NUESTRA ERA. (It is our year. It will be our era.)

So, one could easily say that football and hope are at the heart of Spain. Some victory and pride in the 2010 World Cup would work well as a nice sangria to ease the economic wounds and broken egos of the year. And after last night’s hard-fought win over Germany, that prophecy could come true.

Spain’s first match against Switzerland, was a disappointing defeat that left the city stunned. But Spain rallied, going on to win the next three games against Paraguay, Portugal, and Chile. Next up, the match everyone had been waiting for: Spain vs. Germany, two fútbol giants who had played in the finals of the EuroCup in 2008 – where Spain had won. Germany wanted revenge. Spain wanted to win. We wanted to watch a good game.

The best place to go for a true fan experience in Madrid is Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, where thousands of young adults flock — buckets of sangria and cigarettes in hand, adorned with Spanish flags, David Villa jerseys, and an impressive number of tattoos and piercings. In the midst of all that red and yellow and pride, the feeling was electric.
No matter that it was impossible to see the large screens set up outside; no matter that within minutes we were sweating profusely in the densely packed crowd and 95 degree weather. What did matter was Puyol’s epic goal far in to the second half, which set off a solid ten minutes of celebration so intense that no one was watching the rest of the game. When stop time finally ran out at 93 minutes, there was a second explosion and we joined the crowds parading down Paseo de la Castellana in a euphoric mass. We spent the rest of the night waving flags, blowing vuvuzuela, breaking out into Spanish chants, and yelling every time we saw fellow fans in a flash of red and yellow. The walk back to our apartment took about half an hour, and still the city was in an uproar for victory and for España with people running the streets, cars honking horns, and flags flying.

They say that Spain is in rough economic shape, and there was just a metro strike last week following a civil servants’ strike last month. But last night everyone proudly sang my personal favorite cheer: Yo soy Español, Español, Español. (I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish.)

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Hitting the Links, Desert Style

by Jeff Kaiser

AMMAN — Tucked into the rugged, arid hills just 14km from Amman, the 9-hole “brown” Bisharat Golf Course offers a truly unique golfing experience. Jordan’s desert landscape is not a natural home for a golf course, by any means. Because water scarcity prohibits irrigation systems traditionally used to maintain the lush grass of fairways and greens, an innovative approach to the course and game is required.

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Five of us decided that it would be a fascinating cultural experience to play here, so we set off one afternoon for what we thought would be a 9-hole round.

We teed off from a standard-looking tee box, minus the grass, which was of little concern as the ball was on a tee. The fairway, though, was a different story. The fine, rocky soil and patchwork of thorny shrub and tall grass didn’t make for ideal lies (the golf term for the location of the ball at rest). Solution: carry the fairway—two roughly pancake-sized patches of rubber grass, the kind you find at cheap driving ranges—with us. After finding the ball (here, a challenge even more difficult than on a normal course), it is placed on the faux-fairway and hit normally.

Putting on the “browns” took some adjustment—the ball moves much slower on the mix of sand and recycled crude oil than it does on grass. That’s right, the putting surface is made of sand and oil. And, according to the course owner, the browns had been remixed a few days ago, meaning they were particularly slow because the oil was fresh. It was no surprise that after two and a half hours we had made it through only 4 holes.

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