Leaving South Africa
The end of the group stage and the round of 16 are a swift sporting cull. The tournament suddenly shrinks from 32 teams to eight; squads implode, players announce their retirements, coaches are sacked and, for the big teams, national narratives end in disaster. It is a moment to anticipate, to relish the possibilities and pitfalls. My final game of the World Cup was Tuesday night in Cape Town. Spain v Portugal: the concluding match of the round of 16.
For the first time, I went to the game without an obvious mission. I had been the Portuguese in Jo’burg, but they were the underdogs in the contest. I was getting fed up of constantly backing the loser, and Spain—in their best moments—had played the kind of football I wanted to watch. So that was enough; tonight it was Spain.
But somehow, I couldn’t quite rustle up the required degree of Spanishness. The host and I approached the stadium from the opposite direction to most of the crowd. It’s strange, after attending so many games as a part of the great sprawling river of people, to be swimming against the tide. Crowds look and feel different if you walk into them rather than with them. They seem to move faster and you sense their blind collective energy.
I was in tourist mode, on a search for the right kind of vuvuzela for assorted kids, nephews and nieces back home. Mission accomplished, we stood on the edge of the fan walk and took the chance to let the thousands drift by. There was plenty of facepaint, flags and national colours, but there was a curious lack of edge about them. Listening more closely to accent and voice, I realised that the group of Spanish fans in full matador costume were South African and many of the Portuguese were locals—for every Iberian therewas someone in South African colours. It was a beautiful sight, but in the words of my friend’s football-obsessed son (who berated me for not going to Germany v Ghana when I had the chance), “they don’t they realise just how important this game is.” For those who are truly inside the World Cup bubble, lost to its cumulative manic logic, it is that important, but I don’t think it is to the crowd.
The atmosphere inside the stadium bore this thought out. Apart from a few tiny blocks of concentrated colour, we were entirely mixed up. In many ways a good thing, but there was no sense of contest or opposition in the air. The vuvuzelas were much in evidence and there was no singing or chanting that could be heard above them. Though the first ten minutes of the game appeared absorbing to me as the Spanish hit their passing stride, the crowd didn’t think so. A Mexican wave was up and running, and made its way three times around the stands before finally petering out.
As a spectacle and sporting performance, the evening was a pleasure. Spain scored only once, but it’s a treat to watch a team that can keep possession of the ball, that always seems to have passing options, that makes shapes and movements that are easy on the eye and occasionally breathtaking in the execution. When the final whistle went, which no one of course could actually hear in the stands, there was a delayed roar from the crowd and they begin to decamp.
Watching the faces around us, the host and I looked for signs of despondency or despair amongst the Portuguese, but one could barely tell them and the Spanish apart. Everyone seemed reasonably happy. Perhaps that is the sensible way to deal with football victory and defeat, but it doesn’t seem quite right to me.
In Football in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described himself as a beggar in the stadium, asking for a beautiful move or pass. I am a beggar too, but a beggar for other people’s meanings, for their hysteria and despair, for their love and hate. Tonight Galeano would have feasted on the intricacy and confidence of the Spanish midfield, as I did, but in the realm of meaning, I felt as if I was going home hungry.
That said, I have been gorging myself on the good, bad and indifferent meanings of the occasion for three and a half weeks. In the realm of meaning, the World Cup has been a sociological banquet, a parallel universe of ludic pleasures. For what it’s worth, my most ayoba moments included:
1) In the fan park at Polokwane, 20 minutes before the kick off of France v Mexico. A young Mexican couple approached two local boys and offered them two tickets. When the kids realised they were serious and the tickets were free it was like the moment in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Charlie finds the golden ticket. They ran into the crowd waving their tickets in the air.
2) The heady 20-minute period during South Africa v France when the score was 2-0 and another two goals could have put the hosts into the second round. The air in the Soweto fan park was electric with possibility and you knew that whatever happened next, South Africa is going to feel good about itself and its team.
3) Screaming “Viva Ghana!” “Viva the Black Stars!” “Viva Africa!” at the top of my voice as they headed for the quarter finals, in a bar where they still had a commemorative plate featuring the architect of apartheid himself, Hendrik Verword.
Tomorrow I will be on the plane home and watching, like the rest of the planet, from the sofa, and writing a few concluding thoughts on the final stages of the tournament. But this is it in South Africa. We’ll do the postmortems and the cost-benefit analyses later. But, for myself, I’m leaving with my beggar’s cup full to the brim.
With love, peace and thanks to Sarah, Molly and Luke for letting me out of the house to play, and Geoff, Jane and Sinead for helping keeping it afloat; in South Africa to Gregory, Lindiwe, Sindiswa, Lungelo, Zenzele, Khaya, Ntombi, Mark, Jessica, Crystal, Nicos, Paul, Kadu and the PE Zim posse, Janet, Grant, Sam, Shelia, Frankie, Michael, Paul, Lewis, Maureen, Steve B, Simon K, William, Valentina, big Al, Alix, Stan and Peter for sharing the journey and the love; to the man who sorted me out with phone credit in Soweto, Mary and Duncan back at base camp and the editor-at-large in the field. The Host, The Greek, the Anthropologist, the Operator, The Swede and The Shrink: you know who you are and how much I love you.
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