Monday, February 11, 2013

Like the World Cup should have been

In the couple of days leading up to the Afcon final, street vendors began to appear selling Burkina Faso and Nigeria flags. This was far from the mass scale of flag-selling during the World Cup but it was still a sign that the Afcon party was belatedly infecting Johannesburg.

Want a flag?

Even the metro cops were joining in

Having made the decision to turn up extremely early to avoid the traffic chaos that I had experienced earlier in the tournament, my friend Chris and I arrived with a little less than four hours until kickoff. Even at this point, crowds were slowly streaming into the stadium precinct. Flags, vuvuzelas, body paint, makarapas, whistles and singing created a buzz. The vast majority of people were supporting Nigeria. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the large Nigerian community in the city, especially in the central areas of Hillbrow and Berea. What was surprising was the number of South Africans also supporting the Super Eagles. Crime and criminality have become associated with Nigerians living in the city and it is all too easy for people to blame 'Nigerians' for the city's problems. This football match appeared to turn this association upside down; being Nigerian or associating with Nigeria had become a positive thing, if only temporarily.

Nigerian fans already in party mode
African media agencies pounce on the partygoers
Walking towards the spectacular stadium, it was quickly apparent that this was unlike the World Cup almost three years previously. As football fans, we had been promised an African World Cup (whatever that entailed). After all, we had been repeatedly told that "It's Africa's Turn" and that South Africa would show the world what Africa had to offer. Instead, we were met with the bland, commercialised environment in which we could only consume official sponsors' products. Despite the introduction of cheaper category four tickets for South Africans, high ticket prices barred many of the domestic football supportership from participating. The local flavour of the tournament had been reduced to vuvuzelas. As one of my research informants summarised, "this could be anywhere!"
Sorry mate but Tunisia didn't qualify
I bet they did
This time was different. Cheaper tickets must have been a factor, allowing those who could be a part of the World Cup to engage, to experience and to celebrate. The final was a dream for the proponents of the Rainbow Nation. People of different races, ethnicity, class and gender were socialising with one another, dancing, cheering and blowing vuvuzelas together. Yet it was more than that. Whether their team had reached the final or not, the vast array of different African football shirts and flag signalled an wider belonging to Africa. Zambia, Ethiopia, Tunisia, DR Congo, Somalia and Tanzania were just a small number of those I saw.

Firestarters after Nigeria score
Police and stewards 'leap' into action
The bland hot dogs of the World Cup had been replaced with the pap and steak and boerwors rolls, staple foods at domestic matches (although prices had skyrocketed - Afcon final premium I guess. I paid R50 for my pap and steak). The small group of Burkinab√© near me drummed from start to final whistle, giving the tournament the beat that had been lacking. Despite their team never recovering from going 1-0 down, they carried on drumming and dancing throughout; an impressive effort. I had been given a giant inflatable orange hand, which I used to hi-five anyone who would let me. Three-quarters of the stadium erupted just before half time when Nigeria went ahead. Some idiots set off a flare, which forced the South African Police Service (who attempted to look casual and sporty in their tracksuits) to 'leap' into action. Despite going through five roadblocks to get to the stadium, the security checks on fans walking in were inconsistent at best. A feeble, half-hearted pat down from a steward would do little to detect things such as flares. This constantly happens at local games; my favourite is still seeing someone pull out a full bottle of whisky from his sock! Although better than the desert that made up the Mbombela pitch, the pitch at the National Stadium still resembled a beach with clouds of sand constantly kicked up by the players. A far cry from the World Cup. 

The Burkinabé supplied the beat

Pitch or beach?
And this creates a problem. I've fallen into the trap of comparing a westernised, modern, slick, commercialised World Cup with the chaotic yet dynamic African tournament. I'm not sure how to extricate myself from this other than to continue digging my hole with my romanticism of the final. It was vibrant, a celebration of African football, and a welcoming atmosphere. Most of all, it was fun.

The game wasn't bad either.

Nigeria fans in celebration

Nigeria prays in celebration as a tiny spaceship descends...
The inevitable traffic chaos ensued after the game as thousands of people tried to get home as quickly as possible, but this didn't seem to matter so much this time.

Nigeria celebrating on the big screen

The final party
Yet, as I drove to work this morning, the newspaper headlines attached to most Jo'burg streetlights were not about the final but Manchester United extending their lead at the top of the English Premier League. Is the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations already being forgotten?

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