Saturday, June 12, 2010

The World Cup Kicks Off: South Africa versus Mexico

What better time to launch a new blog than at the start of the long-awaited 2010 FIFA World Cup?

First, a brief disclaimer: While I have been known to watch the occasional international match, and have watched at least three World Cups excluding this one, I know very little about football, so please excuse any misinterpretations of the games below. For the most part, I would like to focus on the spectators of this wonderful chaos, and relate what my experiences were like during the course of this thrilling event.

And so, without further dallying: my impression of the first match of the World Cup!

I decided not to let fact that there had been a minor stampede at the Fan Fest before the Cape Town kick-off party frighten me away from experiencing that massive 74 square metre screen!

Three hours before the kick-off, and an hour before the opening ceremony was to start, I found out that the Fan Fest area had already reached capacity – but not matter, I was determined to be among revellers and the World Cup is long – I had no doubt I would still get to see the mother of all screens.

It was a wonderfully warm winter’s day in the Mother City, and I was heading into town via the train. When it finally got to Rosebank station, the train was stuffed full, and I ended up running to the end of the platform to get a carriage that was three-quarters empty. I clung to a pole in the centre of the carriage and off we set. I shared the space with a gaggle of what I guess were probably Canadian girls, all dressed in SA colours and clutching vuvuzelas.

One joker in the carriage had opted for a miniature vuvuzela, but instead of emitting the loud squawking noise we are so familiar with, it gave off what sounded like, for the lack of less macabre description, the squeal of a baby being throttled. Many people on the carriage giggled whenever he blew on his diminutive instrument. At every station we stopped, dozens of vuvuzela-toting fans streamed on, and the train got fuller as we approached Cape Town proper, squealing mini-vuvuzela burbling away.

Once we pulled into the main station, the platform was thick with fans. There was no shoving but the crowd moved swiftly towards the exit, with people snapping pictures on their phones and cameras as they went.

The blare of vuvuzelas filled the air as people of all colours streamed off towards the (already-full) Fan Fest and the Fan Walk, some pushing baby prams. I have a slight problem with the notion of people exposing toddlers to this kind of noise... I saw a few more people with babies that evening, and it was a tad disturbing. But hey, it’s their child to abuse.

I met my friend outside the station and we decided to head to the Waterfront, which held the promise of more giant screens. Throngs of fans clad in the nation’s rainbow colours could be seen everywhere, with a few amused-looking French strewn in for variety.

Like everywhere else, the Waterfront was packed... The MTN fan tent, which reverberated with pumping music was stuffed full, and we were told that we could only get in with tickets, which were no longer available anyway.

I was about to give up hope but then we forced our way into a tent that had been set up by The Dubliner bar. It, too, was almost tearing at the seams, but we eased our way through the crowds and finally ended up against the one wall and between two of those wooden table-and-bench combos you often see in watering holes.

We could just see the screen above the bar about six metres in front of us, but it was difficult with all the tall people obscuring my view. As you can imagine, the tent was buzzing with excitement and the occasional paaarp of a vuvuzela, so we had to watch the opening ceremony muted. I didn’t see a big chunk of it, but I liked the section at the end where they flipped over boards to show the names of the participating nations. Aside from that I can’t really comment on it, unfortunately.

The tents’ occupants were comprised of about 70% males and 30% females, and I’d say about half of the fans were white. A group of what appeared to be Ethiopians, judging by their fangear, wedged themselves in next to us, but they were happy supporting South Africa, singing Shosholoza along with the crowd.

Along with Olé, the song from the new Coca-Cola ad was also a popular anthem during the game... But we know MTN also scored big by adopting the term “Ayoba”, which was yelled out repeatedly during the match.

And moving on to spectators who had probably never heard the words “Shosholoza” or “Ayoba” before: the two Kiwis who were standing in front of us, clad in jean shorts and very friendly. The one was sitting in the massive shoulder-high flower-pot next to me – those huge clay ones, this one containing a sapling – and after a while I decided to get up onto the edge of the flower-pot too. This proved a great move, as I had an awesome sight of the television screen over everyone’s head.

Most of the fans called for silence when the Mexican anthem was played, and the vuvuzelas were reasonably quiet. (And after having seen the opening of the France-Uruguay match, I wish the fans in the stadium would show the same courtesy.) As there was no sound it was a bit tricky syncing ourselves with happenings on-screen, but we belted out Nkosi Sikeleli with gusto.
There’s nothing like the exhilaration of being in the same space with hundreds of people and hearing them concur on every event unfolding onscreen: every time Steven Pienaar came onto the crowd would chant his name; his popularity is evident, when Mexico almost scored a goal before ten minutes was up, there was a group flinch, and the crowd screamed in unison when Bafana Bafana got close to Mexico’s net.

Early on in the game, we were given a penalty, but unfortunately Pienaar missed the shot. “We still loved you!” yelled the South African fan next to me, who was clutching two 500ml tumblers of beer, and had a yellow vuvuzela tucked into his backpack.

The goal-keepers on both sides were kept working hard throughout the match, but when our Itumeleng Khune did falter after 32 minutes – a raucous cheer went up as the goal was declared off-side.

The tent exploded in hysteria when Bafana scored the first goal of the tournament, a beautiful kick by Sipiwhe Tshabalala at the beginning of the second half. The entire venue reverberated with shouts, vuvuzela blasts and stomping as the crowd jumped up and down, singing, “Olé, olé, olé!” Everyone hugged and even the New Zealand duo seemed ecstatic for South Africa. The celebrating did not stop for another five minutes as the fans went wild. It was as if we had already won the game!

After that goal I must admit to eyeing the clock nervously... And not without reason, because in the 78th minute, Mexico finally equalised. The crowd’s enthusiasm did not dwindle though, and some took to chanting, “One more, Bafana!”, and the last fifteen minutes had me almost falling out of my flower-pot in anxiety, as the post denied our boys a shot at victory in the 89th minute.

Fortunately, the Mexicans did not manage to score another goal – but we missed two good shots at goal in the last few minutes – and the game ended in a draw, a great start to the World Cup!

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