World Cup 2010 Revisited: On South Africa’s Exit

*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.

**Another unpublished blog post about South Africa’s exit from the World Cup.

On South Africa’s Exit

South Africa is out of the World Cup. Their exit marks the first time a host nation has failed to advance past the group stages of the tournament. How much will this loss affect the spirit surrounding the World Cup in this country?

The act of rooting for South Africa knit the nation and its visitors together. Watching South Africa’s games served as some of the most heart-rending and vibrant experiences of my time here. I’m not an experienced World-Cup-goer, but I doubt foreigners have ever embraced a team as fully as they embraced this home side. During my travels so far, I’ve seen nationalities from over the globe retire their national colors in favor bright South African yellow during Baffana Baffana games. It just felt right to root for them, as underdogs, as a colorful and diverse nation, as victims of long and still raw human rights abuses, as an uplifting story of democracy with much work to do.

During South Africa games the nation breathed together, which nations do all over the world when their team is playing. But this was a different sort of breath. It wasn’t poisoned with expectation and already-formed criticisms of personnel or coaching or player development. It was the type of breath you take after spending a floundering minute underwater. It was celebratory, thankful, and filled with hope.

I’ll be sad to see the force of this support go. I’m not sure if the city streets or the nation’s “Fan Zones” will buzz again with the energy exhibited during South Africa games, even for the tournament’s final games. In Durban, over 60,000 fans poured into South Beach to watch the big screen for South Africa’s first two games.

At these parties of both natives and visitors, the fans’ collective reactions revealed the massive hope and pride that exists in this country. I saw this not only in the moments of ecstasy for South Africa, like Tshabalalu’s opening goal, but also in moments of devastation. When Uruguay sunk South Africa 3-0, these 60,000 fans didn’t shout profanities or excuses. They didn’t react in all those negative ways that us Americans are used to when our teams lose. Instead, they collectively dropped their heads, in silence and shame, and shuffled off of the beach. One could say that these fans all shut up because they never expected South Africa to do much, that this result fulfilled a predictable end. But I think that such a widespread reaction of shame conversely showed how much pride the people of this nation have. Their pride is real and honest. And it is still intact. South Africans can hold their soccer-loving heads up knowing that their team competed in one of the most competitive groups of the World Cup. They drew Mexico and beat a world power in France.

It’s a shame that we won’t get to see such bright displays of Bafana Bafana spirit anymore. But I don’t think the home spirit will simply disappear with South Africa’s elimination. We won’t see flaming piles of vuvuzelas on the side of the road.

Instead, South Africans will continue to win us visitors over with their kindness and their hospitality. The people here – black, white, colored, and everything in between – tell you about their culture and their land with a passion and glint in their eye. Even if such hospitality has been drilled into them through media propaganda, and even if it’s plastering over the country’s mass depravity, it comes across as real. And it’s infectious.

Four years ago, Germany may have provided a perfect vessel for this tournament. While South Africa can’t compete with German infrastructure or design, it provides more of the magic drink that gets into your blood and makes you want to swim around in the country for a while. You want to talk to more of its people, see more of its land, eat more of its food, reach out more to the country as a whole. Soccer becomes secondary to awareness of the nation. And this, after all, is a big reason that a country hosts a World Cup. A country’s spirit relies on so much more than the results of its national team.

I don’t know what it would mean for the country to “win” after this World Cup. I don’t know how many tourist dollars or jobs the country needs to generate to pay for the billions it spent on hosting this tournament. But I know that the country is trying to offer a compelling dream of a better future. And I know the country deserves our support, now and after this tournament is over.

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