My FIFA World Cup began when my 11-year-old son got hold of the nearest thing to an instrument of the devil from an indulgent friend. This metre of hard plastic, in cheap and cheerful colours, called vuvuzela, slithered home almost quietly. Quietly, because at first go it’s difficult to blow; almost, because, sadly, the boy learnt to use it rather quickly.
In the run-up to the inaugural day, we joined South Africans in a state of barely controlled frenzy. Strangers leaned out of cars to toot vuvuzelas. Bankers, lawyers and grandmas sported football T-shirts, face paint and flourished vuvuzelas wildly. Football hogged media attention, crowding out passing distractions such as conflict, oil spills, Greek debt and gold prices. For a nation institutionally divided by race earlier, the World Cup is a unifying celebration of South Africa’s diversity to a degree that even the inveterate cynic finds overwhelming.
When June 11 arrived, the inaugural ceremony was almost drowned in the din of tens of thousands of vuvuzelas. The drone that TV viewers liken to a swarm of bees is shatteringly loud in a stadium, sounding like a cross between a love-lorn moose and an elephant in labour. It’s constant, unrelenting; it’s the defining aspect of World Cup 2010—which will be remembered for the vuvuzela, and for those entrepreneurial souls selling earplugs as “vuvuzela killers”.
It is Africa’s moment in the sun—overdue for a continent that provides such prodigious talent to world football, even if South Africa is not Africa and even if the largest number of visitors for the games came from the United States and Europe. The South African people have been superb hosts, rallying strongly behind their team (Bafana Bafana, or “the boys”), as well as the teams of other African countries. That has been heartwarming to watch, even if the wearing of the comically bizarre makarapa helmets—as emblematic as the vuvuzela—should be made a punishable sartorial offence.
Bafana will be Bafana! S. Africa’s Katlego Mphela puts one past France’s goalkeeper Hugu Lloris and Gael Clichy
Vuvuzelas and makarapas apart, there has been quite a bit of football: 67 goals scored in the first 32 matches at an average of 2.1 per game, dozens of yellow cards flashed, penalties awarded, and enough controversy to keep the chatterati gainfully employed, if such were possible. Pundits spoke sagely of a low-scoring world cup. That, they said, was due to the cold, the lighter-than-usual Jabulani ball and the altitude of Johannesburg and Pretoria. But once Portugal put seven past the hapless North Koreans at the waterfront in Cape Town, that line was quietly withdrawn.
At a couple of hundred decibels, the only thing you can hear at the 2010 world cup stadia is the vuvuzela. beyond it, there’s divine football.
So then, are commentators merely generating theories in search of matching facts? Perhaps not to that extent.
The South American teams are the standout of the tournament so far. Argentina hasn’t been tested as yet, and Brazil faces its first test against Portugal, the match still two days away at the time of writing. Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico and Chile looked convincing. Only Honduras lost both their first games. The Latin American teams have been faster, more skilful in stringing coherent attacks, silky crosses and defence-splitting through-balls. Above all, they have been vastly entertaining.
With the exception of Ghana, African teams struggled. While the hosts did not make the second round, they saved national honour in dispatching France. Nigeria’s star-studded Super Eagles seldom played as a team, and even their final game saw them measure up to their potential only occasionally. Cameroon looked good against Denmark, but failed to beat them. Algeria defended determinedly, but some credit for the draw goes to the lustreless English attack. Cote d’Ivoire had the toughest draw of all in the “Group of Death”. They lost to Brazil, but were not disgraced. Perhaps the less than spectacular African performance was due to the fact that most African stars are well-known in Europe, where they ply their trade. Unlike in the 1990s, when Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal burst upon the world, the African stars and their techniques were familiar to their rivals this year round.
The big European sides have disappointed so far. England only managed a draw with the US and Algeria; teams that on paper should have been outclassed. Predictably, France went one up on England by losing to Mexico, fighting with their coach, boycotting training for a day, and then losing to the hosts. Favourites Spain were dismantled by a nation known for skiing, chocolate and horlogerie, not ‘footballery’.
Italy had to dig deep to secure a draw against that great rugby side, New Zealand, and while Germany had reason to complain in their game against Serbia, missing a penalty made this side the first German team to lose a group phase game in a world cup after 1986. Netherlands won their first two matches playing tedious football. Were these disappointments due to the rigours of domestic leagues? Possibly. But surely these league fixtures could not have been a factor this year and not earlier.
In fairness, it’s still early to draw conclusions or rule out the big teams, which have the most match experience. Perhaps Spain and Portugal have shown that the corner is being turned. Football fans should hope this is so, for the sake of the tournament. Attendance will be affected more by the absence of the big teams, and to an extent by the absence of the host side. But the exuberant host fans will cheerfully turn up for team boasting recognisable names. So if the big teams survive, the only fallout of Bafana Bafana failing to make the cut may be a marginal reduction in vuvuzela volume. Not such a bad thing!
As a football aficionado who has watched nearly every game of every world cup since 1986, my bet is that the final on July 11 will feature two big teams—the draw could serve up a tantalising clash between Brazil or Spain in the second half of the draw against Argentina in the top half. Will that happen? Or will there be surprises? Expect the unexpected. Ke Nako—it is time—to enjoy this feast of football, and for football fans to fill up memories for the next four years. With or without vuvuzelas!
(The writer is an IFS officer posted in Johannesburg. He writes this piece as a serious football fan.)