By: Trevor Kew
After scaling the spiralling walkways and jogging up the steep steps of the big stand in Rustenburg’s stylish Royal Bafokeng Stadium, I finally reach my seat, catch my breath, and look out on a sea of green speckled with droplets of sky blue.
The national anthems begin and the sea- and sky-colored supporters take turns standing and singing proudly before returning confidently to their seats. The opening whistle sounds. It’s Uruguay against Mexico. The final group matches of the 2010 World Cup have begun.
Most of the groups in this tournament still have at least one if not two qualification spots still hanging in the balance and there are undoubtedly some surprises to come, but on this day, Group A looks already pretty much decided. Of course there is the remote possibility that either South Africa or France will pour in a deluge of goals at their simultaneous match down in Bloemfontein but this seems less than likely, given the hosts’ tendency to attack at the speed of an elephant gestating and the performance of Les Bleus over the past few years, best described by a French friend of mine as “merde in every form of the word” (this is the team, remember, whose coach proposed to his girlfriend on television immediately following his team’s group-stage exit from Euro 2008. And kept his job).
And so as I settle into my seat (or half of it – the other half having been claimed by a pleasant but quite large Finn who will be sitting next to/on me for the rest of the tournament, I discover upon enquiry), I expect nothing more than an enjoyable afternoon of watching two entertaining, skilled sides battle for the right not to play Argentina in the round of sixteen. Along with a little bit of Latin flair, of course.
For a time, that’s exactly what the match delivers. The Mexicans begin brightly, stringing pass after pass together, each successful connection serenaded by an “Ole!” from their large contingent of sombrero-ed, wrestler-masked, Aztec-warrior-costumed supporters. In the 22nd minute, Guardado smashes a screamer but it rebounds back off the underside of the crossbar.
Almost immediately, Uruguay – for whom a draw would be enough to see them through in first place, avoiding Messi &
Photo from fOTOGLIF
Co. – respond with the type of cautious yet captivating play that has made them, for me, one of the outside teams to watch in this tournament (remember, after all, that they have won it twice and so clearly know a thing or two about soccer). Just before the interval, they score a brilliant goal when the impressive Diego Forlan measures a perfect cross onto the head of Suarez, who simply nods it home. Uruguayans leap to their feet and wave their sunny flags.
But then, all of a sudden, a third group of fans erupt into wild celebrations. Yellow and green jackets seem to pop up all around the stadium, those familiar six-coloured flags start waving and the infamous vuvuzelas – until now, largely (blissfully) silent – drone their monotone song. In the stand to our right, groups of children in school uniforms (who received tickets for their efforts in recycling programs, I hear) begin to dance in unison, as if choreographed for a musical: everyone to the left, now to the right.
“What happened?” I yell at a pair of bearded Uruguayans seated just in front of me.
“South Africa 2, France 0,” one replies, looking at his cell phone. “Don’t know what took them so long…it happened almost ten minutes ago!”
The atmosphere is now tense in the stadium. If Mexico concede one more goal and Bafana Bafana score again, the impossible dream will become a reality.
In the second half, a giant roar erupts again. Sadly, it is a case of Pied Piper syndrome, of following blindly, as one South African old boy points out.
“It was a French goal,” he tells me, chuckling bitterly. I look around: not a Frenchman in sight. “Someone must have got excited and hung up their phone too fast,” he shrugs.
Today, at my hotel, I watched the replay of South Africa’s 2-1 victory over France with great interest. For me, it was one of the most exciting displays of attacking soccer yet seen at this World Cup. If not for the woodwork and several world-class saves by Hugo Lloris, South Africa really could have accomplished the unthinkable. They deserved to. Unfortunately, as gunslinger William Munny famously said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” But for the South Africans I spoke with on our way out of Royal Bafokeng after Uruguay’s 1-0 victory, it meant a lot to them that their boys hadn’t gone down without a fight.