On the eve of the opening ceremony for the World Cup in South Africa, I wrote about how this felt from my point of view…. that of a South African expat. Now, after a three week blur of activity, which included travel to South Africa, we are in the home strait. I am back in Durban for the semi-finals post a short break in a Zululand game reserve.
I have been very fortunate to be able to view games from every perspective - from morning sessions in Cambridge and Boston sports bars, at home in Wellesley (coffee in hand), with family in South Africa ( beer in hand), at the FIFA Fan Park in Durban, and this Wednesday in the Moses Mobhida stadium…. where Germany takes on Spain.
Throughout I have been struck by the depth of passion fans have for the sport and how almost every South African I know finds a team support, even after the national team has bowed out. I am also amazed by the diversity of the fans I have met along the way.
This is truly a global game…... with nearly a billion viewers across the globe expected to tune in for the finals in the Soccer City ’Calabash’ on 11th July ……. 10 times that of the Super Bowl!
So with 60 games played we are down to the final four. 28 countries are homeward bound with Germany, Spain, Netherlands and Uruguay left to battle it out.
As can be expected, there have been many surprises on the field, and for me, just as many off the field.
On the field, South Africa didn’t make it past the group stage, the first time a host nation has failed to make the cut. After a very emotional opening game against Mexico in which every vuvuzela in South Africa was blown to exhaustion, the team wilted against Uruguay, crowned by an Oscar winning performance by the goal keeper as he was red carded and sent from the field.
Then, despite highly publicized discord in the French camp and the dismissal of a player early in their final match-up, South Africa couldn’t sway the tide. For South Africa, at least, some honor restored.
France, widely expected to make the quarter finals, bowed out in the first round – no doubt ‘le guillotine’ will be busy on their homecoming! Worse were England and Italy, expected quarter finalists, who paid the price for lackluster play - England are said to be looking for a new coach ….. they’re driving home! The US, despite determined rallies late in each of their pool games did a little better than expected by fans, making it to the second round before toppled by Ghana.
In the quarter finals, Africa’s last hope, Ghana, choked on both an 11th hour penalty post a Uruguayan handball that stopped a certain goal ….. and again in the subsequent penalty shoot-out. The other surprises were Netherlands ousting of Brazil, one of the expected contenders to win it all, and Germany’s humiliating 4 goal drubbing of Argentina. The last contender, Spain prevailed over Paraguay, which, despite not being a high scoring game this was pretty much as expected.
Off the field, I got my first surprises while still in the air winging my way to South Africa half way through the first round.
As usual, I scan local newspapers while still in flight to get a feel for the ‘topics of the day’. I was amazed to find the first articles on politics, corruption or violent crime on page 13 – the first 12 pages almost entirely devoted to soccer, South African business and international politics. A stark contrast to the norm.
My next surprise was reading that outside of South Africa, the US had bought the most tickets for the World Cup, even more than England the birth place and assumed bastion of the sport. So there are a lot of soccer fans this side of the Pond!
Whilst negotiating my way through O R Tambo international airport in Johannesburg – the main entry point for tourists I had my next revelation. In the last 6 years I have made 24 trips back to South Africa so have firsthand experience of long waits for luggage - outside of Brussels the longest I have consistently experienced anywhere in a decade of travel - and a 1 in 3 chance of damaged or lost pieces.
This time around I was first to the carousel….. and low and behold our luggage was already out, baby car seat and sporting gear included. Something has certainly changed for the better!
Given that safety, security and logistics have been areas of international concern in the lead up to the event, I set out to test this in the games I attended last week. And this is where I have been most impressed! The official ride from the satellite parking point to the central hub was post a mere minute wait in line, with spare seats available…. and within the speed limit for the duration. Likewise from the central hub to the venue as well as the outbound trips post game. This was certainly not white knuckle, death defying experience I was expecting and have experienced in the past!
Finally, security was very visibly present – from routine inspections at gates, to roving foot patrols, bomb sweeps, boat and helicopter patrols etc. Last week I went places in the city I haven’t been in 2 decades and would never normally have gone. A pleasant surprise indeed!
It is very obvious that South Africa has rolled out the red carpet and pulled out all the stops to showcase the country and its capabilities to the world. The mood here is more buoyant than I have seen it in years. My sincere hope is that this prevails once the fanfare subsides, the crowds leave, and everyday citizens get back to their daily lives.
Make no mistake…. there is a hangover to come, particularly regarding the financial implications. But now that South Africans have seen what is possible will they demand and expect this going forward, moving the country from strength to strength?
Onward and upward!
Paul Leslie-Smith is a Wellesley consultant.