Overheard: A World Cup of Voices
University of Portland
Perhaps my favorite thing about the 2010 World Cup was the way it offered a forum for so many of us to think about and engage with South Africa, and with Africa more broadly, in new and challenging ways. For me, it became a World Cup of ideas and voices. What does it mean to be South African? What does it mean to be African? How does soccer matter? How does history matter? What does it mean to be an outsider interested in such questions?
Scenes of the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa
I was that interested outsider—a mix of scholar and soccer fan with too brief experiences living, working, researching, and travelling in different parts of Africa, trying to share whatever perspectives I had through nearly a year’s worth of long-form blogging and a trip to South Africa for the group stage of the World Cup. My experience was always engaging and always had as much to do with me listening as it did with me telling. So, in writing a brief reflection on the event, I thought it might be most appropriate to offer a brief mélange of voices and perspectives that challenged me in different ways—some with their insight, and some with their ignorance. These are not intended to develop a theme (some were from my own experience, some are collected from on-line sources, and most were included as part of my various blog posts at Pitch Invasion); they are just intended to offer one more, brief forum to think and engage:
“The City Press newspaper set out at the beginning of the World Cup to say we’re not going to do the elite World Cup. We’re going to go to the poorest parts of the country, Mpumulanga, Kwazulu Natal. We were sure we were going to find a story of hopeless people who couldn’t give a damn about the World Cup. In fact what we found was a very engaged community, highly excited, watching TV on big, fancy screens put up by the state. That was replicated all over the show.” – Ferial Haffajee, editor of The City Press, as quoted in “Did South Africa win the World Cup?” by Richard Lapper and Simon Kuper of the Financial Times.
“We really do live a privileged life in our suburbs, don’t we?” – A pair of (white) 30-something South Africans looking out the window of their first ever train ride on a “Soccer Express” train from Pretoria Central Station to Soccer City.
“What is so striking about Soccer City is that – unlike Ellis Park of the FNB Stadium which it replaces – you are entirely enclosed within the perfectly cambered calabash once you are inside; there are no vistas of the city or the world outside. This may well be a function of international design trends – the bird’s nest factor – rather than ideology, but the effect is intense all the same; at a time when it seems increasingly difficult to hold the Rainbow Nation together, the ‘African calabash’ seems to provide South Africans with the fantasy of containment within a single shared national identity.” – From an essay by Mark Gevisser in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian.
“So why aren’t there any penalties for making a forward pass?” – A thirty-something (white) South African loving the opening game of the World Cup in Soccer City, but still trying to understand how soccer is different from rugby.
“Probably the more glaring anomaly[in the World Cup budget] has been around arts and culture, where a 2010 task team was axed without an explanation and the R150 million allocated for the World Cup seemed to vanish…” – From an article by Janet Smith in the June 12 Pretoria News addressing the secretive South Africa 2010 budget.
“I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound… I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?” – A quote on the vuvuzela from Sepp Blatter as reported in the June 15th, 2010 Johannesburg Star.
“We used to call it our ‘FNB Stadium’. There would be singing for their team on this side, then singing on that side. We would have our best dancers go out at the interval; they would send their best dancers out. It was just sand where we were playing, but for us it was a great occasion…Now, they just spoiled our field.” – A Soweto resident explaining what happened after the local authorities decided to “upgrade” their community pitch with a locked fence and a misplaced changing room.
“In this part they are too busy inside with the Play Station.” – A Soweto resident explaining why it was rare to see kids out playing soccer in the streets.
“What you don’t see is that here in the locations [townships] things are getting tense. I’m telling you, after 11th July when you are up there [back in the US]—well, just watch the news.” – A Malawian immigrant in South Africa commenting on rumors of xenophobic violence after the World Cup (rumors which seem to have mostly not come to pass).
“I don’t know anything about soccer, and I don’t know much about Africa, but I have to say it seems to me like a pretty amazing accomplishment for South Africa to host that thing just less than 20 years on from the end of apartheid.” – From a random post-World Cup conversation in Portland, Oregon.
Overall, what such voices around the World Cup suggest to me is that while soccer is ultimately a frivolous game (albeit one that can be great fun), the way it engages us offers access to rich social complexities. So, as I wrote in my own longer reflection on the whole experience: “I loved this World Cup because it allowed me to try and think hard about globalization, culture, urbanity, inequality, nationalism, identity, sports in society, and many other incarnate ideas that have fascinated me at least since I first travelled through South Africa nearly 15 years ago on my way to two years in Peace Corps Malawi. But I also loved this World Cup because it allowed me to scream from the bellows of my soul when a ball crossed a line in the grass.”