Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Bittersweet Game

I am quite cross with myself for never getting around to writing a proper blog about the World Cup before it began. This was not for lack of want or material to write about, more about procrastination and a grasp of time that seems to slip away with an ever increasing speed as the weeks whiz by.

In any case…

The weeks leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup (Feel it! It is here!), were a crazy time in South Africa. The anticipation in the air was palpable, as was the growing number of foreign tourists slowly filtering into the major cities. 2 weeks before kickoff, from what I heard, Johannesburg was the place to be. The energy in the air was impossible to ignore, and people in general were incredibly excited.

Here in Cape Town, things were significantly more subdued. Out on the Saturday night before kickoff the following Friday, our usual haunts were no more busy than usual. And all of us wondered what this meant for the month to come.

Had I written this a month and a half ago, I would have expressed concern about what lay ahead. About whether South Africa was prepared for what was coming – both the good and the bad. About how the tourists expecting a sunny vacation would cope with torrential winter downpours in the Western Cape. Not for the first time, I would have wondered if giving South Africa the tournament had been a good idea. 

And then…suddenly…finally!...after years and years of waiting and preparation, it began.

From the time the first ball dropped (no pun intended), everything changed. When Shakira and Xolani walked on stage at Soccer City during the opening ceremonies and told Africa that this time was for them, the subdued city of Cape Town turned into a sparkling hub of energy. When Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first World Cup goal ever for Bafana Bafana, South Africa and the whole African continent exploded. This explosion would grow in intensity and contagious enthusiasm with every match. When overseas visitors began to filter into the Mother City as we approached the second week of the tournament, the din of vuvuzelas became a constant chorus - with intensities varying from mild in some of the Southern Suburbs, to deafening in the downtown core and ear-splitting in the stadiums at the matches.

On the flipside of this growing excitement, one question was becoming glaringly obvious – Where were all the people?

Halfway through the tournament, the number of tourists in Cape Town and around the country was far lower than had been expected. Those who were being hit hardest were at both ends of the income bracket. Some luxury hotels sat at quarter occupancy, with business even worse than usual for the winter months, as the regular visitors had stayed away because of the World Cup. Cabs sat empty, their drivers desolate and sullen, the money they had borrowed for licenses and cars for this very purpose showing no signs of being made back, let alone making a profit. When Bafana Bafana was eliminated in a nail-biting game in the first round and each of the soccer titans fell one by one in early games, the countless street vendors who had invested small fortunes in flags and team paraphernalia saw their potential goldmines go down the drain. Empty seats were seen at many games, despite the public being told the matches were sold out. According to Fifa this was because of overseas and corporate ticket holders not showing up for games. Either way, it was a bitter pill to swallow for those who would have given anything to go to a game. For many who generally live below the radar, spirits were low.

Not that most people caught up in world cup excitement would have noticed. On the whole, the vibe in Cape Town was intoxicating.  While I remember remarking on how the popular restaurants and nightspots that my friends and I frequent weren’t any busier than normal, I am only aware of the empty hotels and unhappy cab drivers because a friend told me. No, I, like so many others, was at this point fully caught up in world cup fever.

Fortunate to be able to attend some games, I had the incredible opportunity to experience matches in several different parts of the country. Each stadium stunning in construction, each city alive with its own particular brand of Ayobaness.

In Cape Town, the fan walk - a 2 km long stretch of road and cobblestone between the city centre and Green point stadium flanked with vendors, musicians, and packed to the gills with happy revelers wearing all the colours of the rainbow – was an adventure in of itself.

In Port Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela stadium struck an impressive profile against the sky and the heavens held back until the game we were at just ended before drenching its 34000 occupants in warm winter rain.

In Durban, I felt the most spirit. Aside from the impressive beauty of the Moses Mahbhida stadium, with its pointed steeple and almost string instrument-like roof, Durban was something else. 26 degrees even in winter, Durban’s beach-lined promenade that led from the stadium right up to the fan park was full of smiling people speaking countless languages was magic. People weaving their way through the crowds to the huge screen that had been erected on the beach, metres from where the warm Indian Ocean caressed the white sand of the coastline.

A stop in Johannesburg during the last week of matches afforded a look at Soccer City and its beautiful tiled mosaic exterior. Afternoon lunch in Melrose Arch coincided with a meet and greet with the Ghanaian squad – arguably the true heroes of the tournament.

Back in Cape Town for the thrilling Semi-final between The Netherlands and Uruguay, the days following that match and before the final were palpably less chaotic. The approaching feeling of anti-climax waited in the wings, impossible to ignore.    

Sunday July 11th was the date of the 2010 World Cup final. Years of planning, preparation and hope, a month of goals and red cards and vuvuzelas and tears, it all came down to this. Spain took on The Netherlands in an aggressively played match where players from both teams seemed to forget the spirit of good sportsmanship. In the end, Spain emerged victorious. And while an unbeaten tournament record and second place finish is nothing to scoff at, this is after all sport, where second place is first loser, and the crestfallen Flying Dutchmen went home empty-handed.

After watching the game at a local restaurant that was filled to capacity with patrons wearing orange and red and yellow, we surfaced onto Long Street, where celebrations were well underway. Surrounded by people from around the world who had all been infected by the fever, we kissed the morning and said goodbye to the 2010 World Cup. It was on this evening that one of my most lasting and heart-warming memory of the tournament was made.

Just after midnight in the packed bar, I found myself dancing on stage, facing the crowd. Then the DJ dropped two songs that will forever be remembered as the anthems of the 2010 tournament. One, the official song of the cup – ‘Waka Waka’, the other, the song of one of the main sponsors – ‘Wavin’ Flag’.

It is difficult to describe the feeling that came over me as I scream-sang the lyrics to each of the songs along with every other person in the bar, hundreds of hands waving and feet jumping…even now just typing about this memory gives me goose bumps. For in that moment, it wasn’t about any particular team, or player, or about who had won the tournament, or where everyone was from.  In that moment, it was about celebration. Ayobaness. Ubuntu. And the one event that unites people from across the world, World Cup soccer. It was a moment I won’t soon – and hopefully not ever – forget. And I am confident the same can be said for everyone else with whom I shared that moment, and everyone who shared similar moments with people all over the world, throughout the tournament. 

The day after the final was an appropriately gloomy and grey day in Cape Town. Pathetic fallacy at its best. About 60% of South Africa called in sick that day, no doubt global statistics were comparable. It was like the whole world was hung over.

Two days later, it was still quiet. The tourists had gone, the vuvuzelas had stopped blaring, and the whole city seemed less colourful.

Newspapers around the world heralded South Africa for a job well done. From my side, despite not being a national, I could not be more proud of my adopted second home. The entire event was superb – from the gorgeous stadiums, to the seamless ticket collection at the airports, to the weather – which in Cape Town was completely uncharacteristically gorgeous and sunny, to most importantly, the beautiful people of South Africa, who warmly welcomed the world with smiles and friendliness and very little of the crime that the international media had the world believing awaited them in big bad Mzanzi.

It is now 10 days since the closing ceremonies, and business as usual as usual. Were it not for the stadium and the banners welcoming the world that still flutter on the lampposts along the N2 highwayS and the occasional wail on a vuvuzela, one might never know that anything out of the ordinary – anything extraordinary – had happened.  And even still, it’s all a little different. A little sadder.

Driving along the road that flanks the stadium this afternoon, I could not believe this was the same place that just weeks ago was drowned in a sea of people and colours and lights and sounds. Today the whole area was deserted and a feeling of emptiness overcame me. The banners seem almost mocking, a grim reminder that it is all over. The sound of the vuvuzela that occasionally punctuates the air somehow sounds changed – no longer jubilant, now mournful.

And the average South African – the mama selling her wares in Green Market square, the car guard who hoped the World Cup would afford him enough tips to go back to see his family in the the DRC, my students who wrote me essays and essays about how the tournament would change the country in a positive way – is anything different for them?

The short answer is no, says the cynic in me. The optimist in me wants to think that the World Cup was just the beginning for South Africa and the continent, that tourists will come back in droves now that they have seen its beauty and that it is actually not as dangerous as everyone says. The realist in me knows this is likely untrue.  The idealist in me pipes in that hosting the tournament was better than not hosting it. The pragmatist in me knows that the debts that have been incurred as the host country will take decades to pay off.

And so? Where does this leave things?

I don’t pretend to have any answers or to offer any profound insight; these are only my thoughts, a random assortment at that.

In summation, the World Cup, for me and so many others coming from a position of privilege, was amazing. A once in a lifetime experience that I enjoyed from start to finish.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment and reflections will do little to comfort the manual laborers employed to build stadiums, or the temporary workers who worked in them who all now find themselves without a job. Or the people living in townships who STILL don’t have toilets and sit shivering in their electricity-less shacks as the cold front moves in, and the winter weather that stayed away for the tourists shows up for the locals. Or the street side merchandise vendor who tonight will wish – wish more than anything – that his unsold box of Azzuri scarves was food, so that he could be able to feed his hungry children.

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