World Cup 2010 Revisited: On American Fandom in South Africa

*Some more digging in the crates … What follows will be a series of blog posts, some published and some not, slated for The posts chronicle my experience as a tourist during World Cup 2010 in South Africa. The timing of posting these is obviously terrible, as the world’s “Soccer Clock” is currently as far as possible from approaching World Cup relevance. But while I have the time and the means to revisit old writing, I thought I’d post them.

**An unpublished blog-post on American fandom in South Africa.

On American Fandom in South Africa

The number of Americans that showed up to South Africa surprised many people here, including me. We did a lot of good here. But as a group we have much to learn about traveling to a World Cup in a foreign country.

We’ve done some work in Africa to chip away at our image as one of the most insular and stagnant first world populations on earth. Americans bought more tickets than any other foreign country. Estimates of Americans traveling for the World Cup ranged from 30,000 to 50,000. We more than competed with the support of one of the most well-traveled soccer nations, England. And not surprisingly American fans dominated the stands against Slovenia and Algeria. We produced some of the loudest roars, most relentless chants, and outrageous costumes of any fan group. Some of the best costumes I’ve seen include a statue of liberty, a full cast of American superheroes like the Hulk and Captain America, and some Revolutionary War soldiers. American fans also wore respectable amounts of painted flesh in near freezing temperatures.

I met some great fellow Americans on the road. I met doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and systems analysts. I met blacks, whites, Asians, and miscellaneous peoples from all over our great country that had different drawls, inflections, and senses of humor. We bonded over our passion for US soccer, our sense of adventure, and our absurd willingness to empty our bank accounts to see a World Cup, a willingness that most of those we left back home don’t really understand. Bonding with these folks often made me proud of my heritage. Here, amongst hordes of homogeneous-seeming Brits and Aussies, it’s easier to see what’s special about our country and people than it is at home. At the World Cup, maybe every national group has a similar experience, necessarily seeing others as homogeneous: “Man, you ever noticed how small those Argentinians are, on average.” Or, “man, are all Germans really so boring?”

This is one of the great contradictions of the World Cup; it promotes nationalism and stereotyping while it also destroys parochial attitudes. We all celebrate nationalism, our unique cultures and histories, while we also realize shared humanity. On this note, the most brilliant World Cup slogan of many here in South Africa is: “Coming Home Together.” Back to the motherland. Back to the cradle of humanity. This is always in the back of my head in Africa. I want to connect with almost anyone I meet, no matter how foreign their language or upbringing, as a fellow human. But no matter how much I try, making desperate hand gestures to signify my need of a bathroom, the people I most instantly recognize and connect with are Americans. I hear our whiney, hard-syllabled voices over the drone of vuvuzelas or under the high bore of construction work, and I know I’m only a few seconds away from a high five, chest bump, or head butt.

As much as we Americans revel in senseless celebrations of nationalism, we also seek to escape our tribe. I have no way to prove this, but I think Americans, more than any other nation, wear the colors of other national teams. For such a patriotic country, we’re awfully fickle about our national team support. This is expected of a multicultural nation like America. We boast lots of peoples hailing from mixed nationalities with legitimate claim to more than one team. “This half is American,” one American guy told me while pointing to his chest. “And this half is Brazilian,” he said, pointing towards his feet. Umm, I thought, then why aren’t you on our national team? I’m a bit skeptical of all the Americans I meet that claim some sort of Brazilian ancestry. But maybe such multi-national support is the way of the future. We’ll all root more for beautiful attacking soccer than for any one team to win. But I can’t help thinking that this type of attitude cheapens fans’ emotional investment in the game. Isn’t the World Cup as good an opportunity as any to show some unconditional and pure love for your country?

Despite my problems with some pseudo-American fans, our presence here was good for us and I hope good for South Africa. As I’m proud of our national team’s performance, I’m proud of our fan’s show here. We showed passion, bravery, and respect. After the Algeria game, for example, I saw many Americans taking pictures with their opponents, a congenial end to a contest I feared might see some riots between Muslims and freedom fighters. After the Ghana game, I watched an American woman congratulate another woman with a Ghana flag draped on her back. “We’re happy for you,” the American said. “Thank you,” the other woman said, showing a warm row of white teeth.

Of all the countries we could have lost against, I too was happy to lose to Ghana, the last hope for Africa. But I wasn’t quite ready to show this. I closed my eyes against the cold Rustenberg night, cursing the mistakes our defense made.

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