My World Cup
(by Chuck Korr)
Football means something special to the readers of this website. That's why it might seem a bit sacrilegious to start writing about some of my experiences by saying that watching the football was far from the main reason for going to South Africa and that few of my strongest memories have to do with what I saw take place on the pitch.
The compelling reason to go to South Africa was to be there and to share the joy and excitement of seeing a nation and a people that mean so much to me host the world's most important sporting event. It was a long awaited coming out party for South Africa: a chance to show the world and themselves that South Africa could run the World Cup with the same skill and and fun that other countries had in the past, and do it with a distinctly South African flair. That meant a lot more than just the omnipresent vuvuzela. A country with a sad history made up of self-inflicted wounds had gone from international pariah to capturing the attention of the world. For almost a decade, the European press (the British were the worst) had written about all the disasters that waited visitors, how FIFA had made a mistake, and that plan B better be in place.
As the competition unfolded and there were few problems, all that was left to complain about was the vuvuzela. It funny how the first question that almost everyone asked me on my return home was a version of “how could you stand that noise”. The answer is simple – I was bothered because it was all part of knowing that the matches were in South Africa, not in Germany and the noise is a lot worse on tv than in person. Sitting in the stadium, the sound gets dispersed, except when you're lucky enough to sit in front of two guys who have a competition to see who can blow longer and more off-key. Watching on tv, the miracle of modern electronics gathers the sound and send it unfiltered right into your living room.
There were memorable footballing moments, most of which I saw on television, either with friend or at fan zones. – Landon Donovan's goal against Slovenia and 93 rd minute goal against Algeria were moments of magic. I watched the former with hundreds of people who are still trying to figure out why the U. S. didn't win 3-2. I saw the Algeria match with more than 300 people at the U. S. Consulate in Cape Town. When he scored you could have heard the roar half way to Johannesburg. The Consul_General (dressed in her authentic U. S. strip) ran out of people to hug and kiss and just danced her way around the grounds. Even the loss to Ghana had redeeming moments. The U. S. came from behind (AGAIN!) , lost to a brilliant individual effort, and the last surviving African team moved forward. I saw that match at the home of the director of the film version of “More Than Just a Game”. I was outnumbered 32 to 1, but I had the best shirts- St. Louis United for the first half, U. S. for the second.
I went to three matches – football in the first two wasn't even mediocre, the third was special. But the crowds at all three were incredible. England v Algeria brought out the best in English supporters and the worst in English football. Tens of thousands of English made Cape Town their home for days. If there was a railing or a post where you could hang a flag or a banner, there would be a Cross of St. George show up on it. One of my favorite moments was seeing a few of the Knight of St. George (supporters in mock medieval armor) with their arms around three Algerian supporters, one of whom looked a Bedouin warrior. It was a scene from the Second Crusade, but this time they were joined together in their love of football and the excitement of wandering around one of the world's most stunning cities.
The day before the match was one of the high points of my trip. A hundred English supporters organized a trip to Robben Island. I had met many of them in London in May and some had read More Than Just a Game. We were able to organize a special tour for them so they could see the area where the prisoners played football and the tour was conducted by two former prisoners – friends of mine, one of whom is featured in the book and film. It never ceases to amaze and delight me when people who knew little about South Africa get caught up in the story and show these former prisoners the respect they so deserve. On the boat trip to the Island, a couple of English supporters said they like to talk with me about something else – our shared feeling about West Ham and my book about the club.
In December, when the draw set Portugal v Brazil for the last week in Durban, I had every reason to feel good. I was going to that match with some of my former FIFA MA students. We lucked into what could have been the best match of the first round. The only problem was that neither side needed a win and both played like it. Forget the match – I've never been to a sports event that compares to what it's like walking forty minutes surrounded by thousands of Brazilians in a party mood. It was even better since twenty of them were friends and former students and they partied for three days. The music, the excitement, the exuberance is hard to describe. Even after a dull match, the fun continued.
Brazil v Netherlands was the most important match I saw and the best football. The two crowds of supporters were equal to the occasion. The Dutch travel with as much enthusiasm and almost as much noise as do the Brazilians. Our seats were ten rows from the pitch even to the penalty area at the end where all three goals were scored. It's hard to say whether the Brazilians sounded more disappointed at how the team didn't score more in the first half or that they didn't score at all in the second. My Brazilians friends summed up the result rather simply, “We weren't very good and we didn't even try to play Brazilian football.” That didn't mean there wouldn't be more partying that night.
The day before that match was special for me. I presented a paper about football and Robben Island to an international conference. When I finished, I was followed by Lizo Sitoto , who was the goalkeeper for the best team on the Island. He served almost seventeen years as a political prisoners, three years in house confinement and more than ten years in exile. He spoke about prison, the abuse and torture, how much football did to help him survive, and what the World Cup meant to him. When he finished, there were few dry eyes in the audience and the standing ovation was followed by people lining up just to talk with him. Those of you who have attended academic meetings know just how unusual that is.
There were two other tv moments that I'll never forget – being in a hotel bar with dozens of friends watching the last fifteen minutes of Ghana v Uruguay. All of us were rooting for the last African team and were crushed by how it ended. I saw Germany v Argentina in the Jo'burg airport and almost no one in the huge crowd could believe what we were watching.
When I started this, I warned you that there might not be much football in it. The strongest memories are of the crowds at the matches, the thousands of people wandering around the streets of three of South Africa's largest cities, and the constant reminder that something special, something happy was going on throughout the country. I don't have a clue about the overall economic impact of the World Cup on South Africa, but I can assure you that flag manufacturers will never do as well. Countless numbers of cars were driving around with one or more flags flying from the windows. Sometimes it would be multiple South African flags, sometimes South African from one widow, the team you were supporting from the others. Since 1993, I've been to South Africa more than a dozen times. I've seen the transformation and I know about the many problems the country faces, as well as those it has overcome. I have friends who were involved with the planning for the World Cup and others who have opposed it and protested for years about the expenses involved. One thing was clear to me and to them - people of such different backgrounds were out on the streets together in ways that had never happened before. The mood throughout most of the country was a combination of “we did it” and the sheer happiness of being part of a once in a lifetime events. It's easy for a cynic to say that football was incidental to what happened in South Africa and that some other event could have meant the same thing. But the simple fact remains that the world came to South Africa (and watched it on tv) because of football and because football matters to people around the globe. It took guts and vision (on the part of both FIFA and the South African organizers to bring the World Cup there . Like hundreds of thousands of other people, I was the beneficiary of that decision and lived through three unforgettable weeks. I hope this report gives you some idea of what happened and I'm sure the photos will provide an even better sense of it.