Notes on South Africa

MONDAY 21st June ~ “Okay, I’ll put you on the earlier one,” said the chap on the domestic check-in desk at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo airport. “But be nice to me.” I was about to compliment him on his tie when my mate Mark announced he would find a cash machine and I realised what was really going on was a squeeze, without which kick off in a football match 500 miles away would not be made. The deal was done and we had arrived in South Africa.

Approaching the ground in Port Elizabeth on foot is not unlike the walk down Beeston Hill to Elland Road. There’s nowhere decent to drink and enterprising local youths offer lucrative car parking “services” to which a sizable yet low-key police presence turn a blind eye. A neighbourhood watches as a colourful river of people, a trickle by the time we passed through minutes before kick off, wends its way to the magisterial Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

And then there are the vuvuzelas. Like wasps returning home after a hard days’ stinging, solo performers toot their way into an arena seemingly bulging with noise for an ensemble performance of that now-familiar multi-purpose note.

Its sound spreads like a virus for which there is no known cure. For the thousands of South Africans present, clad in the yellow of Bafana Bafana, it has become what football sounds like; a commitment to celebrating the game no matter what. The drone is ever present, dipping and rising in volume as the game ebbs and flows. It exalted wave after wave of Chilean endeavour just as much as the wall of Swiss defenders that repelled it.

Despite facing 10 men for what seemed like a fortnight, Chile will never have to work harder for a 1-0 win. As Switzerland manager Otto Hitzfeld symbolised his team’s work ethic by trudging the touchline dressed as a removal man, the evening sunshine gave way to a distinctly northern European temperature and the cowbell-clanging Swiss supporters were daring to dream – just as their back line melted under hot stuff from their opponents.

The Chile fans, who all afternoon had so admirably refused to partake in Mexican waves on geopolitical grounds, could bounce even more enthusiastically when an astonishing late Swiss chance to tie the score went begging and everyone strode into the night, senses brimming with the sights and sounds of the same old game that somehow seemed new again.

More notes on South Africa on TBG.

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