Saturday, June 12, 2010

An experience like no other

The morning after, when things have quietened down a little, I look back on what I experienced with feelings of amazement and excitement. It started in central Jo'burg at the Noord Street taxi rank. Not the safest/ nicest of areas but a bustling hub of commuters, market stalls and shoppers. Flags and Bafana shirts were everywhere with the sound of vuvuzelas piercing the commotion of everyday life. The locals seemed confused to see 2 abelungu (white guys) walking around there, even more so when they saw my Booth shirt combined with my new Booth hairstyle (i.e. completely shaved). Meeting up with one of my Kaizer Chiefs supporter friends, Dan, Mzolo and myself used the new bus system to head to Soweto. Akin to the London Underground at rush hour, we were packed into the bus along with a mixture of daily commuters and football tourists. There was even a Mexican fan wearing a kilt! The atmosphere in the bus came alive when a few of us at the back started to sing Shosholoza and soon half the bus burst into song!

 The crowd at the Soweto Fan Fest just before the game

Walking from the bus stop to the fan park, we saw the side of Soweto that many forget or are unaware of. It's not just shacks and poverty but in places, a suburban lifestyle. After arriving at the fan park early to avoid the traffic, we joined in a game of football but without goals. Soweto has rarely seen so many white people there, although the first bunch in Bafana shirts that we met were actually American! The park really came alive after the opening ceremony when K'naan came on stage and sang Wavin' Flag, one of the World Cup songs. Thousands of people singing along to this raised the party to fever pitch, everyone waving their flags and vuvuzelas in unison.

 Getting into the party mood

The performance of Bafana in the first half dented the enthusiasm of the crowd. Thwala had a nightmare at left-back, his lack of pace brutally exposed. The central midfield pairing of Dikagcoi and Letsholonyane were clearly nervous while Teko Modise on the right side of midfield was having a howler (yet again) as he constantly lost possession. Towards the end of the first half, Bafana clawed themselves back into it, creating a couple of half-chances but had to thank a combination of Mexican profligacy in front of goal and a string of fine saves from Itemelung Khune for going into the break at 0-0.

The big screen

It was in the 55th minute that changed everything. Dikagcoi's brilliant long diagonal though-ball release Siphiwe Tshabalala on the left, whose pinpoint top-right corner finish was exquisite. Soweto just could not believe it. Not only had Bafana ahead but they had done it with such style. The crowd simply erupted in jubilation. I jumped in the air, shouting and screaming along with thousands of others. People were hugging strangers in celebration. It's these moments that are difficult to describe. Such a feeling of mass euphoria has to be experienced to understand. It's even more confusing that I felt like this considering that I'm not even South African. I think I've got so much emotionally invested in this World Cup that sometimes I'm not sure whether I would rather England or South Africa to win the tournament. I would be delighted with either.

 Watching intensly as Bafana search for the winner

Modise continued to be wasteful as Bafana searched for a second goal. But if the 55th minute was a cause for jubilation, the 79th minute flattened the mood in Soweto. Calamitous defending allowed Rafael Marquez time and space to drill the ball past Khune at the near post. Stunned, silent, horrified that this could happen. This had destroyed the dream start that Bafana had craved. If that wasn't bad enough, Katlego Mphela's effort against the post at the end tormented us; the swell of the crowd as we all thought it was going in turned to agony and disbelief as it rebounded away. Many would have taken 1-1 before the game but we were left feeling that it could have been so much more. There would have been partying on the streets of Soweto if they had won; dancing, a few beers at some taverns and then some more dancing. As it was, the celebrations were muted although fans were encouraged by the second half performance.

Proudly South African

As we were leaving the fan park, someone shouted BOOOOOOTH and before I knew it, I was surrounded by Bafana fans and an Asian news crew (not sure what country they were from but Ben, you might see me on TV in Japan!). A big, fluffy microphone shoved in my face, I was asked how I felt (deflated) and how Bafana would fare in their next two games (I optimistically said four points from those games). The France v Uruguay match offers much hope that Bafana could do just that.

 Dancing at half time

But before I lose my senses completely, a comment made to me by a friend as the TV was panning in on the diversity of the crowd at Soccer City restored a certain level of rationality when he said "I wish to see the whole nation AFTER the World Cup". While the feelings of yesterday were incredible, some are under no illusion that the World Cup really changes anything.

I've got a sore throat and cracked lips from too much shouting and vuvuzela playing!

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