Goodbye to Little Athens—and goodbye Bafana

June 23, 2010
Goodbye Bafana
Goodbye Bafana

On my final night in Little Athens, the Greek insisted on my learning some cultural history essential to understanding the meaning of Greece’s progress through the tournament. We began on YouTube, with a trawl through Greece's entries to the Eurovision song contest starting with the magnificent 2002 entry Say the Password; a song and performance of such excoriating awfulness that the bottom from third place it received appears generous. Greece, increasingly heady and cocky on its suicidal spending spree, considered the result a disgrace—after which enormous financial, political and creative energies were expended on trying to win the thing.

This, however, was nothing to the hysteria generated by Greece’s utterly improbable victory at the 2004 European Football Championships. If, despite all the World Cup hype, you remain sceptical about the potency of football glory and its impact on societies, then take a look at the Greek celebrations that awaited the champions of Europe. Two hundred and fifty thousand adrenaline-soaked maniacs packed into the ancient Kallimarmaro stadium, which had been refitted for a mere 80,000 for the summer Olympics, and three million came out onto the streets of Athens.

Inside the stadium, the sky was awash with flares and fireworks. Manic house music blared and an ecstatic crowd bayed for their heroes’ return. The Greek translated the PA system, which implored the crowd to sing a sanitised version of their favourite chant, reminding them that CNN are there, and asking whether they could try and celebrate without crudity. To which the crowd responded, men and women, young and old alike, “Lift the fucking cup.”

The pirate ship Hellas isn't looking quite so threatening these days. Holed below the water line in Port Elizabeth, they kept bailing like mad against the Nigerians and only just kept afloat. Now they are sailing north to Polokwane, where an altogether more significant naval force—Argentina—awaits them, and they need to win. Could they really get away with it again? The Greek was phlegmatic. “If we win this we win the World Cup”, and with a sharp burst of acceleration from the car, he was gone.

Now I was in the hands of The Operator, a man capable of driving from Lisbon to Porto in the pouring rain to see Sweden vs Denmark while conducting an unbroken and complex negotiation over two mobile phones, in two languages, with participants in the Middle East peace process in at least three different countries. And that’s when he’s taking time out. Imagine what his working life is like.

He was fresh off the plane and ready to go. We headed for Soweto, but there was no mucking about with buses and half-remembered landmarks. We got in the car, turned on the GPS and drove straight to the car park in the Soweto cricket ground where the fan fest was located. South Africa were playing France, and not only did they need to win, but they needed to win by a good few goals. Meanwhile, Uruguay and Mexico fought for the top place in the group.

We arrived an hour before the games were due to start and the crowd was very thin, and apart from us, almost exclusively African. A few vuvuzelas tooted but it was quiet, almost subdued. Why? It was a work day for many. Perhaps they were coming late with a heavy heart, sensing that that South Africa are on the way out of their own World Cup. The task seemed so huge and the team had seemed so poor last time they played. I could feel it in myself. I couldn’t bear the thought that they would be knocked out, but even more I couldn’t bear the thought that they’d be humiliated, and go out of the world cup without showing some fire and self belief.

But today, thankfully everything was different. Bafana came out and played. You could sense the relief, the exhilaration, the pride that they were taking the game to the French. When France lost a man to a red card, the crowd seemed to have swelled, and the noise levels were rising. But could they really do it? Ten minutes later we had our answer. Bafana scored and the place, now feeling packed, exploded. Really, I mean exploded: hats flying in the air, people leaping off the ground. The kinetic energy of the crowd soared.

When the second goal came we did it all again and now, for the first time since I arrived here, the crowd and the team seemed to believe that not only were they going to win, they might actually qualify. With Uruguay beating Mexico, just two more goals against the worst looking team in the tournament and Bafana were through. For ten delicious, hope-drenched minutes we all believed, we all screamed at the top of voices, we all sighed as one when a shot was missed or saved. The man in front of us periodically ran around in manic circles, waving a newspaper headline reading “Bafana Storm the Bastille!”

The counter-revolution arrived. France managed to score, and Bafana's task now looked impossible. But the team played with such brio that we kept on believing in them. It was only in the final minutes of injury time that our collective energy began to wane. Final whistle. Bafana were out, but they had played fantastically. As we left, much of the crowd appeared to be staying, as the MC on the stage belted out, “History has been made, history has been made, we have beaten the France we have beaten the France”. On the way home from Soweto all the callers to the radio shows seemed to feel that South Africa can be proud.

I watched the Greece-Argentina game at the Operator’s rather luxurious accomodation—it was rather good to sit on a sofa for the fist time in ten days. I took intense delight in Greece’s capacity to shamelessly defend with ten and half men, hoping for mistakes and bad luck to befall their enemy. The game was still 0-0 after seventy minutes; the Nigeria vs South Korea game was 2-2. For a few brilliant minutes it appeared that a Nigerian goal would mean that Greece will be going to the round of sixteen. Argentina scored twice, and sent the pirate ship to the bottom of the ocean—loaded, I suspect, with chests full of IOUs, unsustainable hype, broken promises and junk bonds. Maybe when we review the wreck of the good ship England we will find much the same in its hold.