Can you feel it? It is here!

17 Jun

The day before the World Cup kicked off I was driving around with my friend here in Johannesburg and a car pulled up next to us at a stoplight and the man inside rolled down his window and motioned for me to roll down mine. I did so cautiously, I had obviously heard about how dangerous Johannesburg is and the man didn’t look too friendly, once I rolled down the window he leaned over and said “Can you feel it? It is here!” and then a huge smile spread across his face. The light turned green and we sped off while blasting the official World Cup theme song Waka Waka (which sounds better with a lot of bass mixed with the mounting excitement for the greatest sporting event in the world).

The World Cup is now well under way but I think the most exciting moment in the tournament thus far was the opening match between South Africa and Mexico. South Africans were confident that their vuvuzelas, Madiba magic, and ever improving team would be able to sweep aside the Mexicans. A popular fast food restaurant named Nandos ran a full page ad in most of the newspapers that said, “To the Mexicans, a free lunch if you lose.” The excitement here in Johannesburg on June 11th is hard to describe. South Africans had been waiting for that moment for 4 long years. There were countdowns to mark when the tournament was 500 days away, 100 days away, and 50 days away. The wait was finally over, it was time to unveil South Africa to the world.

For the opening match we decided not to go to a fan park because it would be too crowded but we still wanted to watch it with other South Africans so we ended up at a bar. The funny thing about this bar is that it is actually a part of the Zoo Lake Bowling Club, a lawn bowling club in the heart of Johannesburg. I think it is safe to assume that 15 years ago, before the end of apartheid, this would have been a Whites Only institution. The crowd gathered however was very representative of makeup of the “rainbow nation” as South Africa is affectionately called. There were white, black, and Indian South Africans in the crowd, including one fake South African who had put on his South African national team jersey for the occasion. I was caught up in the euphoria of the moment but I forced myself to step back and critically analyze the situation in which I was in. The unifying power of sport should never be underestimated. Yes, sport can create intense rivalries and there has even been a war fought over football, but what I witnessed was the truly beautiful side of the “beautiful game”. One popular beer ad implores the public to set aside its differences because “now is the time to unite behind Bafana Bafana”. This unity should run deeper that football, it should last longer than 90 minutes. What I witnessed at the Zoo Lake Bowling Club wouldn’t have been possible 15 years ago. The physical barriers that separated blacks from whites from coloreds have been torn down, however, their legacy remains in the hearts and minds of South Africans. The night of June 11th 2010 was a symbol of just how far the country has come. I am not naive enough as to think that South Africa has completely rid itself of prejudice and discrimination or that hosting the World Cup has brought the country together for good. What I saw that night was the culmination of years and years of work after the end of apartheid to break down the mental walls that were just as powerful if not more powerful than the physical ones that once divided the country.

South Africa midfielder Steven Pienaar perfectly sums up the growing excitement leading up to the World Cup.

“I think it will be a really special moment,” Pienaar told the BBC. “Not only for the players, but for all South Africa and the whole continent, because it is going to be a day of history, like when Nelson Mandela came out of prison. For us, it is special because it is the first World Cup on African soil. We’re going to make history.”

Pienaar is not the first person to compare the opening of the World Cup to the day that Mandela was released from prison. Danny Jordaan, the head of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee in South Africa has also compared the two historical events in the same breath. In an interview, Danny Jordaan said that when the envelope was opened in 2004 granting South Africa the 2010 event, “I think it was almost a second liberation for us, it was huge moment of joy… the second affirmation of the worth of our country.” He went on to say,

“For me, to think back on special moments in our history: the day that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, the day that we voted for the first time in 1994 — the beginning of democracy in our country — this day (winning the World Cup) stands equal if not ahead as an experience and a significant development in the history of our country.”

Personally, I think this is a bit of an overstatement. Hosting the World Cup has had an undeniable role in rallying people together, but it cannot hope to match the importance of Nelson Mandela walking out of prison. Hundreds if not thousands of people died in the anti-apartheid struggle, they fought to turn the tide in the country, so that one day Mandela might be released and might lead the country into a brighter tomorrow. I think we do them a great dishonor by equating their sacrifice with the hosting of this circus that is the World Cup.

Wavin’ flag

Proudly South African

At Zoo Lake Bowling Club for the opening match

View from the fan park in Johannesburg

Makarapa Madness!!

Interesting to note that the Ivory Coast players (in orange) and the South African players (in yellow) have very light skin tones even though nearly all of those players are black Africans

Fans with a ball of their own



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