Reflections from an American transplant in South Africa
Currently Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa
“Gooooal!” The boy runs around the field, arms out-stretched, pausing for high-fives. The kids have erected their latest soccer field: buckets as goal posts and a halved two-liter bottle as the ball. Their fervor for the sport is apparent; ask even the seven year-old about the South African national team, Bafana Bafana, and he will immediately begin to list the players. “Siphiwe Tshabalala, Steven Pienaar…” These players, along with other world renowned footballers, are their heroes. They were also the cause of the fever that was the World Cup that spread throughout South Africa.
In a rural village in the Northwest Province, the excitement over the World Cup was just as present as it was in the cities. It was different, though – mainly less obvious. The array of team jerseys, country flags, and other soccer paraphernalia that coated the cities were mostly absent. While several vuvuzelas (the obnoxious noise-makers heard at games and much talked about in the media) floated among the children, most everything else was out of people’s budgets. The unemployment rate is at a record-breaking high, most people do not have running water, and it is not uncommon to grow up in a one-roomed tin shack.
No matter the economic status of a community, sports bring people together and soccer is incontestably the reigning one in rural South Africa. Children play before, during, and after school. Young adults organize tournaments between villages. Ask a pensioner and he will regale you with stories of soccer leagues in the good old days. In the absence of a real soccer ball, children are undaunted and quite creative. They use bottles, rolled up plastic bags, and other materials. The large soccer clubs generate huge fan bases; these football nuts could give the most devout NFL enthusiasts a run for their money. Hosting the World Cup was a huge source of honor for every South African, even out in the smallest of villages. Not only was South Africa hosting the world’s most popular sporting event, but they were the first African nation to do so.
I do not know a single person in my village who attended a game during the tournament. The cost of even the cheapest tickets, coupled with the distance and problem of transportation, made it too much for most. The closest people got to even one of the fan parks set up in the cities was a couple matches projected onto a screen at a school two villages away. Yet, this in no way diminished people’s enthusiasm. People tuned in religiously to the matches. At least once a week I was asked “Aren’t you lucky you are here?” Old ladies clucked about what the international visitors would think about the country; they felt like hosts just as much as the nervous businessmen in the cities did. The support and pride for their country were undeniable and no different from those in the cities.
With the World Cup over now, South Africa returns to daily life and relative global anonymity. Shakira’s theme song no longer plays every five minutes on the radio, vuvuzelas are rarely heard and reality seems to come back into focus. But the children keep playing their favorite sport, no matter the pitch or the creative substitute for a ball. And the members of a small village in the north remain proud to have hosted the World Cup and proud to be South African. It did not matter that they were hours away from the nearest stadium, or that not a single tourist cruised through the village. It only mattered that they were South African and that, if only for a month, the world came to their country to play.