Becker’s African Diary #10: Reflections on the World Cup

(This entry was written in Johannesburg, 20.06.2010)

After a beautiful and intense thousand kilometre ride from Port Elizabeth – which brings my covered distance to nearly 7,000km altogether – I arrived in Johannesburg. This city, Jozi to the locals, I like a lot, and it will be my home for the next week or two, and I will be spending a lot of time on the bike to get over the Serbian game. Unbelievable how we could march off the field without at least a point. Despite being down to ten you could see the quality of the team, and Mr Podolski alone could have earned us three points…well, that’s how it goes. I have no idea if we are going to make it. We should, actually, given the strength of the team, but then again it is a young starting eleven, the crowd will back Ghana, and in the end it is football…just ask England.

It is time to sit back and reflect on the tournament a bit, now that nearly half the games have been played and I have smoothly settled in and can find my way around. In general, it is a wonderful experience. The hospitality, the openness and the gentle smoothness of the South Africans justify any effort to come here and join in. Especially for the black population, carried by an unimaginable pride their “their” game, organised by “their” people brings the country into the global limelight, and their passion for the game and generous attitude makes this a moving and touching experience.

The stadiums are top notch, world-class theatres, with Durban and Soccer City being my favourites so far. The logistics surrounding the games is partly a bit chaotic and disorganised, but problems are dealt with a flexible and positive spirit, and there are no bad feelings anywhere. The mood is up, and it remains to be seen if this spirit can be preserved if what will very likely happen happens, and the hosts leave the tournament. It is obvious that Bafana Bafana were expected to carry and lift the self-esteem of an often-impoverished black population in the eyes of the world, and the feeling of being “let down” by the team was perceivable following the defeat to Uruguay.

The weather? Or better: the weathers. Uuurrggghhh…while the days are usually dry and have decent temperatures of around 15 degrees, the nights – especially around Jo’burg, where most of the games are played – hardly raise the bar above zero. In other parts of this huge and beautiful country it can be dreadfully rainy or windy. My message: bring your long johns. The sight of African fans sitting in the stadium with Norwegian woollen caps, two layers of fleece, and two funky coloured scarves is not what I expected, I have to admit…

The ticket situation is a bit weird. There is only a small black market, and although thousands of seats are usually available, it is tricky for most to clinch these seats. It looks as if these tickets are in the hands of football associations and agents and are not finding their way onto the black market, which can be seen as a good thing too.

The thing I am most unhappy about – beside those awful Vuvuzelas that kill the flow of the game, deny its climactic drama, and surely contribute to the poor performances – are the limited opportunities for the “world to meet.” In 2006 I enjoyed so much the chance to meet football fans from all necks of the woods, in the trains bringing them to Kaiserslautern, in the bars of Berlin, in the hostels and on the street…this does not happen here in the Rainbow Nation, or at least, not to the same extent.

There are tons of reasons. Firstly, there are only an estimated 5-10% of international guests in the country for the cup. These 400,000 souls disappear into the wide fields of the Free Land like a sugar cube in Lake Baikal. Also there are the huge distances. Cape Town to Durban is 1,600 km and to Jo’burg 1,300…and as there is no train network everyone flies, which takes the wonderful “we sit for 3 hours on the ICE and talk footy” off the menu. And with a relatively small tourism infrastructure, bigger hostels and guesthouses basically don’t exist, and the typical size of accommodation is 5-15 rooms in small, privately-run guesthouses, which does not make it easy to meet other travellers.

The cities, in their layout and identity, unfortunately follow the American and not the European model, and so: huge streets, hardly any proper downtown, social life in plastic malls, and a very , very limited streetlife, with Melville in Jozi and Long Road in Cape Town being the exceptions. There a very few public spaces for people to mingle, meet, communicate and fall in love with each other.

But the biggest factor in this unfortunate development comes from the tourists themselves, as many of them have a feeling of uncertainty and even fear about the security situation, and avoid taking taxis or walking at night to check out bars on clubs. Even on game days the clubs in the host cities – and I have checked them all – have very few international guests. The weather keeps them indoors as well…

So the meteor strike of millions of foreigners with the colours and feelings and funky attitudes right into the soul of the host nation – as happened in 2006 – will not happen here.

But all of this is put into perspective by something truly amazing, and something that has opened my eyes as well. In 2006 I falsely though the “world” met in Berlin. It did not. There was a whole continent missing. Not here. The illegal immigrant from Nigeria stands next to the drunken English fan and the euphoric Japanese student in the public viewing zones, and this tournament has an addictive “African” undertone, and it is a beautiful, beautiful song, mild and smooth, peaceful and touchingly human in its goodness, even to the unknown stranger…