My friend, Adam: gracious host, South African transplant (going on 5 years now), and all around awesome person, has contributed many guest posts over the last year in the build up to the World Cup. You’ll also notice him in the photo album posted earlier. Now he has offered his thoughts on the perspective on the ground, 5-6 weeks since the games have ended. Look to Adam to provide some additional perspective on the feeling in the country 6 months, and perhaps even a year from now. Thanks Adam! You’re the B-E-S-T best!
By Adam Boros
Johannesburg, South Africa – Despite the fact that July 11th was only five weeks ago, it seems like months since the World Cup ended. The only obvious reminders of the tournament are the odd posters that have yet to be taken down, the few cars on the road that still fly a national flag or the stragglers that stubbornly continue to rock their Bafana jersey on Fridays. At times this can be depressing – the speed with which the tournament came and left was incredible – but having been here for those 31 days was truly special. It was a month that I will never forget for as long as I live.
I moved to South Africa just a few months after the country won the right to host the World Cup. So my entire time in South Africa has, in some way, been shaped by the tournament. For six years, I watched as preparations were made. I saw the stadiums go from nothing to magnificence. I dealt with the traffic caused by the amazing amount of construction being completed. I heard the nay-sayers (both here and abroad) telling the country it could never be done in Africa. But more than anything, I felt the excitement of the tournament steadily grow within me. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was obsessed with the World Cup, but the amount of time and energy I spent thinking about it could certainly have led to unreal expectations.
In fact, it did. I had totally unrealistic expectations of what the tournament meant and would be. I not only expected to have one of the best months of my life personally, I also believed that the Cup would change South Africa for the better, forever. And the most amazing thing, as I look back, is that all of my expectations were met. The World Cup was everything I ever hoped it would be and more. It was beautiful.
From a personal side, I have never had so much fun for such an extended period of time. Imagine spending a month of your life where you never have to ask yourself even once: ‘What should I do today’? There was always something happening, whether at and around the stadiums, at bars and restaurants or at the fan parks. And most importantly, everyone I came into contact with was, very simply, happy. This is the best thing about the World Cup. Thousands of people from all over the world converge on a country for a month. They come to watch football, and to sing, and to dance, and to laugh, and to meet new people, and to be happy. There is no way to describe the feelings of love, friendship and positivity that saturated South Africa during the tournament. By some accounts, crime in Johannesburg dropped by 60-70% during the month. I repeat: in one of the most dangerous cities in the world (by some measures), a soccer tournament led to a 60-70% drop in crime. There are many reasons this happened, including an increased police presence, tight security and extremely efficient World Cup courts. But there is no doubt in my mind that much of this drop can be attributed to the simple fact that the World Cup brings out the best in people. It connects people – human to human – in a way that I have never seen.
This was never more clear to me than before the US-Algeria group match in Pretoria. I was somewhat apprehensive about how the dynamics between the Algerian and American fans would play out. Given the United States’ relationship with the Muslim world over the past decade, I had my doubts that the same fun-loving competitive spirit I had seen would persist. But these doubts were almost immediately allayed as my friends and I – in full American regalia – strolled past a group of about 50 Algerian fans on the street. Several of the Algerians ran over to us with their cameras and we ended up taking group photos. In most cases, we were not able to communicate beyond a few basic phrases, but the warmth with which we interacted was undeniable. Inside the stadium, we sat next to a group of 20-something Algerians and spent the entire match talking trash. Thoughts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ‘on terror’ could not have been further from any of our minds. We were just a bunch of football lovers, proudly representing the places of our birth.
Pride. This was another wonderful component of the World Cup. I am by no means ashamed of being American, but given the actions of our Government and behaviour of our politicians since September 11th, it has been a difficult time to look on my country with pride. During the World Cup, however, I was intensely, proudly American. I painted my face. I wore my custom-designed makarapa as often as possible (one of the better investments I’ve ever made by the way). I sang songs and screamed ‘U-S-A’ as loud as possible. It was a joy. And I am sure that people from other countries felt the same joy. Whatever hang-ups or misgivings or concerns or problems one might have with their country, it didn’t matter. We just wanted to see our boys win. (As a side note: when we scored in injury time to beat Algeria and go through to the second round was one of the most ecstatic moments of my life, as captured pretty much perfectly by this picture.)
Add to these experiences and emotions the fact that more than ten of my friends from around the world came to visit, and it was unforgettable. For several days after July 11th, I had trouble concentrating or motivating myself to get to work. I had post-World Cup depression.
The personal impact that the tournament had on me, however, was nothing compared to what it meant for South Africa. Several weeks before the opening match, I read an editorial by a South African guy who had emigrated to England several years ago. I do not remember much of the article, but at the end he explained why he had finally decided to come home for the World Cup after months of debate. He said that he was coming ‘to see the South Africa of my dreams.’ That is exactly what I saw. For those who have spent any significant time here, it is obvious that the country faces countless, incredibly complex problems. Most of these problems, in one way or another, are connected to race, inequality and the legacy of apartheid. South Africa remains deeply divided, with extraordinary amounts of ignorance, fear, mistrust and outright hatred existing across race and class lines.
So as I watched Mary Fitzgerald Square in downtown Johannesburg slowly fill up on June 11th with Blacks, Whites, Indians and Coloureds all wearing South African gear, it was clear something special was happening. And from the moment that Siphiwe Tshabalala scored against Mexico and the entire country exploded, there was no denying that, perhaps for the first time, South Africa was truly united. For the rest of the month, long after Bafana had been eliminated, South Africans of every colour and income-level celebrated together and hosted the world in spectacular fashion.
It was this hosting that I believe will have the longest-lasting, most important impact on South Africa. On the last night before one of my friends left, I asked her how she felt about her time in the country. She told me that before arriving, she did not even want to come. After reading horror stories about crime and violence in the European press, as well as God knows how many afro-pessimist articles, she was not looking forward to the trip. She thought she would be constantly worried about her safety and afraid to do much of anything. What she found could not have been more different, and she cannot wait to come back.
It is people like her that will impact South Africa for years to come. Hundreds of thousands of tourists flocked into the country (by some estimates, more than a million). They pumped more than a billion dollars into the economy and many will return at some point in the future. More importantly, the vast majority of them went home and raved about the people they met and the places they saw.
This, one person at a time, will help to change not only the world’s perception of South Africa, but of the continent as a whole. That will be the greatest legacy of the 2010 World Cup. Africa successfully hosted the largest sporting event in the world (for those of us who saw the support for Ghana first-hand, there is no doubt that this was Africa’s Cup). And along the way, millions – if not billions – of people saw that Africa is not about war or starvation or Big Men or crushing poverty. Those things, of course, do exist and will continue to hold the continent back. But Africa is actually about laughter and kindness and smiles and music and noise and good food and treating people as they should be treated. And it will never be the same after the World Cup.
See you in Brazil in 2014.