By: Trevor Kew
My South African World Cup started off in Yokohama, Japan. Rolling across my futon, I gave the alarm clock a firm whack and lay there for a moment just listening to the dull hum of cars passing through the quiet suburb of Kominato-cho.
There were fifteen people on the bus to Tokyo Narita airport and fourteen slept for the entire journey – everyone except the guy on his way to Johannesburg. It was so quiet that I really might have jumped if someone had dropped even a single pin on the floor.
Every time I travel somewhere new, I wonder when that moment will come when it really sinks in that I’ve arrived. This realization is normally quite sudden – they call it culture shock for a reason, I suppose – but for this most-eagerly anticipated of trips, it was more of a slow crescendo.
At the beginning of the twenty-four hour marathon journey to Jo’burg via Kuala Lumpur, it was difficult to believe that when we finally arrived, I would actually be at the 2010 World Cup. I plugged my headphones in and watched Escape to Victory (who wouldn’t get excited by Sylvester Stallone and Pele playing soccer against the Nazis?), followed by Goal and Goal 2. In Kuala Lumpur, fans crowded into a sports bar to watch South Korea dismantle Greece 2-0 and Argentina down Greece 1-0. As most people watching were Australian or Japanese, no one got too excited about the results. But all around the bar, eyes were riveted to the screen and fans chattered nervously about security, transportation and their team’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages.
I’d heard reports of a raucous reception at the airport but since our plane arrived at 5:30 a.m., it was fairly quiet at first, aside from a few Slovenians who’d apparently discovered where the vodka was kept on their plane. There were lots of colorful hats, flags and jerseys, however, and as I entered the main lobby, I heard my first blast from a vuvuzela, the infamous plastic trumpets ubiquitous at African soccer matches. At six, hip-hop music filled the airport and I sat down to eat breakfast to the dulcet tones of gangsta rap. At seven, the automatic match ticket machines finally opened and I breathed a sigh of relief as the gold-coloured rectangular pieces of paper slid into my hand at last. I helped a Japanese guy who didn’t speak English negotiate the machine and then wandered off to find transportation with the many dangers of South Africa rattling through my thoughts.
I decided to take the brand-new Gautrain to Hatfield in Pretoria, near where I was staying. There was a smiling African station employee next to the ticket machine.
“Can you please tell me when the next train leaves for Hatfield,” I asked.
“Next year,” she replied cheerfully. “For now, it only goes as far as Sandton, in Johannesburg.”
“We can help you!” said a low voice behind me, with one of the strongest accents I’ve ever heard. I turned and looked at the large Afrikaaner who’d spoken.
“Our car’s parked in Sandton,” said his wife. “We just came to try out the new train! But we’re going to Pretoria so we’ll give you a lift.”
My lift consisted of a grand tour of both Pretoria and Johannesburg, including mine dumps, high veldt, squatter camps and a thorough social,
Photo from fOTOGLIF
political, financial and environmental lesson on South Africa. And to top it all off, they dropped me off at the countryside backpacker’s lodge where I was staying, out in the middle of nowhere. What a fantastic introduction to a country.
The lodge was actually a set of converted horse stables set around a small yard with a wooden gazebo containing a television, a fireplace and a few chairs. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but grasslands. I was definitely in Africa now, but you’d have hardly guessed that there was a World Cup going on.
After hitching a ride into town with two English guys staying at the lodge, I was soon reminded that there was. As we walked through the university in Pretoria where we’d parked out car and boarded the free shuttles to Loftus Versfeld stadium, a famous rugby venue, vuvuzelas swirled around us like a swarm of angry bees. Drums boomed in the distance and fans of both teams raised their voices and shouted the names of the countries.
The teams playing were Serbia and Ghana, the first teams to kick off in Group D. The match itself was reasonably exciting: some great chances squandered, a few good saves, a Serbian player sent off, a Ghanaian penalty (the only goal). But my biggest first impression of the World Cup was of course the atmosphere in the stands. The Serbians were passionately patriotic, standing stoically with their flags raised and occasionally ripping off their shirts to reveal alarmingly nationalistic tattoos. The Ghanaians were something to behold, with their wild dance routines and tetra-colour outfits. They never seemed to sit still for a moment. I even saw one Ghanaian fan with a big round pot balanced on his head, gilded in the red, black, yellow and green of his country’s flag. He kept it up there all game long, no hands necessary, and at one point (I’m not making this up!) there was smoke rising from the pot.
As I lay down in my silent ex-horse stable that night with nothing but the silence of the African night around me, the drums and vuvuzelas still reverberating in my inner ear, and finally had the chance to catch my breath.
I was in South Africa. I was at the World Cup. And I had now finally, truly arrived.
Trevor Kew is a Canadian writer and teacher currently based in Yokohama, Japan. He is the author of two young adult novels about soccer – Trading Goals and Sidelined (to be released August 1, 2010) – and numerous articles on soccer, travel and culture.