Guest Post: A View From the Ground, After The Games Have Finished

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.

The Morning of the Opening

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.

Before US-Algeria

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.)

After US-Algeria

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.

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Guest Post: A view from the ground with less than 2 weeks to go!

My dear friend Adam Boros has written some guest posts for this blog over the last year.  He has lived in Johannesburg for the last five years and has had a first row seat to the build up (both physical and emotional) to the World Cup during that time period.  Below, he provides his perspective, with the games now fewer than two weeks away!

By Adam Boros

May 30, 2010

Johannesburg, South Africa – 14 days. For those of us in South Africa who have watched a countdown that started somewhere over 1,000, the fact that the World Cup kicks off two weeks from today is surreal. The long wait is nearing its conclusion and to say that we are excited is a comical understatement. The country is infected with football fever and it is difficult to spend an hour without hearing or seeing or feeling some reminder of the biggest sporting event in the world. It is difficult for me to put into words the emotions that I am feeling in the final stretch because I have rarely been this excited for any kind of event in my life. So I will settle for a few musings…

  • Fridays – like today – are the best day of the week. For the past few months, South Africa has celebrated Football Fridays every week, when people are encouraged to fly the South African flag wherever and however they can and wear a Bafana Bafana jersey. It has been amazing to see how each week, more and more South Africans don the yellow or green Bafana jersey or affix a flag to their car (or strap SA flag covers on their sideview mirrors in an especially stylish display). Perhaps most amazingly, the people that you least expect to be demonstrating their love of soccer and the national team seem to be the most ardent supporters of the day. Soccer in South Africa is undoubtedly a ‘black’ sport, with few whites showing much interest in local teams or games. But on Friday, elderly white women and big, rugby-loving Afrikaners are proudly Bafana Bafana. Not to mention politicians – it is an entertaining (and refreshing) site to see the national president wearing a soccer jersey to important meetings and events.
  • For those of you who have seen Invictus (which I did not really care for), you will understand that sport has often played an important role in race relations here. In that tradition, the World Cup is already having some unexpected benefits for racial reconciliation in the country. Due to the need to keep football pitches pristine, the best rugby team in the country (the Blue Bulls) was forced to shift its home semifinal of an important tournament from Pretoria to Soweto last week Saturday. Moving a sporting event from one stadium to another less than an hour away would hardly be front page news in most places around the world. But this represented the first premier league professional rugby match ever to be played in a black township. The political and social importance of this event is difficult to overstate, and difficult to understand for anyone who has not spent significant time in the country. To see busloads of Afrikaners flooding into Soweto – a place that I can safely say only a tiny minority had ever ventured into – was a beautiful site. As the captain of the Blue Bulls said after the game, it was a perfect display of “how far we have come since 1994.” And without the World Cup, it would not have happened.
  • Several months ago, I wrote how I was surprised at how little World Cup advertising was visible around Johannesburg. This is definitely no longer a problem. The other day, as I was driving from one meeting to another across the endless sprawl that is Joburg, I decided to count any World Cup-related advertising that I came across. I drove for probably about 60 kms in total, and never went more than 1 kilometer without seeing a poster, mural or advertisement that mentioned the World Cup in some way. The tournament, without any doubt, is unavoidable!
  • The argument that South Africa will reap huge economic benefits from the World Cup is certainly debatable (although I read an article this week that a recent study showed the country’s GDP will increase by an impressive 0.5% from the tournament alone). But I have been especially surprised (and even shocked) at how tightly FIFA controls every last component of the tournament, and stifles local economic enrichment in the process. Without any doubt, the most tragic example of this is the barring of local people selling local food at the stadiums during games (tragic for both the locals and the tourists!). But there is no question that the infrastructural improvements that will last long after July 11 are a huge boon to the country. Although I do not think there is a single Joburger who is not incredibly sick of huge traffic jams, reduced speed limits and reroutes and detours, when all is said and done the new road network, public transport systems and other improvements will make the country a better place to work and live.
  • They may have less utility, but the most impressive infrastructure projects are certainly the stadiums. All of the new World Cup stadiums are beautiful and state-of-the-art. Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending the first ever match to be played at Soccer City. It was a tournament final between two less popular local teams that would normally draw a crowd of a few thousand. On Saturday there were 80,000. If ever there was a stadium to draw a crowd more easily than the participating teams, this is it. It is truly world-class, and the helicopter shots of the ‘Calabash’ with Johannesburg in the background were absolutely beautiful. I went again last night for the first Bafana match to be played there and the atmosphere was unreal. Pure joy, excitement and noise for 90 minutes.

And on June 11th, just 14 days from now, the entire country will be blowing their vuvuzelas, sporting their national jerseys, singing to their hearts content and fighting back tears of joy as Mexico and Bafana kick-off at Soccer City. Of all the official slogans used by FIFA over the past few years, there is only one that truly captures what this tournament means. For too long, Africa is only in the news due to civil war, starvation and poverty. I believe that the 2010 World Cup will be the first time that the entire world will, and must, ‘celebrate Africa’s humanity.’

Woza June 11!!!

Guest Post: Thoughts following the Confed Cup

My dear friend Adam Boros earlier provided a great post on the eve of the Confederations Cup, from his perspective as an American who has lived and worked in South Africa for the last 5 years.  The link to that earlier post can be found here:

Now he has graciously provided an article (and some pics) on his thoughts following the recently concluded Confederations Cup.  Thank you Adam!

Enjoy the post!


By Adam Boros

July 18, 2009

JOHANNESBURG – On June 28th, the fireworks went off, the confetti showers began and 50,000 people began filing out of Ellis Park following Brazil’s 3-2 defeat of the USA in the 2009 Confederation Cup final. Despite the heartbreak that I was suffering from my boys squandering a 2-0 halftime lead, it was impossible to leave the stadium feeling terrible. South Africa had just finished hosting a world class tournament. Full stop.

I have not taken the time to read media accounts of the tournament from the west, so I am not sure how much nay-saying and negativity made its way onto the pages of magazines, newspapers and websites around the world.. All I know is what I saw. And what I saw was simply great. Being here on the ground during the two weeks of the Confed was amazing. It was far from flawless – I think FIFA’s system of staging the tournament as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the big show (as it did in Germany 4 years ago) is extremely smart – but it was amazing. On this page, I’ll do my best to express the experiences and emotions (both positive and negative) that I had the privilege to be a part of.

Let me start with the vuvuzela. The trademark plastic horn, which is the central piece of South African football fandom, became highly controversial during the tournament. Many of the European players grumbled that it was distracting, while international broadcasters complained that it drowned out all of the ‘natural’ noise from the games. There is talk of banning the instrument in 2010, with a final decision to be made sometime in the coming months. This would be a travesty. When FIFA decided to bring the World Cup to South Africa, they agreed to bring South Africa to the world. And as several MTN billboards around the country note: “Africa is a noisy place… And you ain’t seen nothing yet!” (click here to see my entry about early advertising in South Africa around the world cup: The sharp blast that explodes out of the horn is South African football. I could not imagine a match without it, and like many, many fans here, I had long ago stopped noticing the vuvuzela sounds until the Confed controversy. If professional athletes cannot perform due to the ‘distraction’ of noise, they should simply stay home. This is South Africa. And this is a South African World Cup. Adjust accordingly.

That being said, there was cause for legitimate complaint in other spheres of the tournament. Transport and food were two that I personally found very frustrating. FIFA requires that fans (excluding VIPs, media and other special cases) do not drive directly to the stadium. Instead, transport to the stadium is handled via ‘park and ride’ stations around the city. You drive to a designated parking lot (usually at a mall), and then catch a free shuttle to the game. Getting to the stadium was exceptionally easy. Park and rides were set up all over the province, so fans could park their cars more than 100 kilometers from the stadium and still catch a free ride. Getting back from the stadiums, however, was a different story. Fans trickle into stadiums (even moreso in South Africa due to a tendency towards late arrival), but everyone leaves at the same time. It was during the exodus that organisers failed. I went to 6 matches in total:

  • · Match #1: I wandered around the streets of Joburg for 20 minutes (with thousands of other clueless fans) looking for the appropriate shuttle, being pointed in different directions by FIFA volunteers.
  • · Match #2: I ended up walking 5 kms back to my car because no shuttles arrived for at least 20 minutes and I got impatient.
  • · Matches #3-4: Some shuttles arrived, but not enough so groups of fans would mob them, and the only way to get on board was to shove, elbow and push your way in.
  • · Matches #5-6: I had to wait in a mass of approximately 2,000-4,000 people pushing forward while police attempted to keep the calm.

At the end of a match, the last thing you want is confusion and chaos. Especially when it is cold. (Note to travelers from abroad: South Africa in the June/July is cold. Temperatures often approach freezing during the nights and buildings are not designed to keep people warm. I wore a wool hat and gloves, as well as at least 3 layers to every night game.) I am not sure where the organisers are going wrong, but this is a major problem that needs attention.

Food was another challenge. For me, one of the best parts of attending a South African football match is the food. Both inside and outside of the stadium, people set up tents and sell ‘plates.’ These include your choice of a hunk of chicken, beef or wors (South Africa sausage), your choice of rice, pap (Southern Africa’s staple food) or dumplings (steamed, fluffy bread) and a bunch of sauces and side salads. A plate normally costs about R25 ($3) and is freaking good.

Unfortunately, FIFA has chased away all of these vendors. Due to (I am guessing) sponsorship considerations, there are no vendors allowed anywhere near the stadium. This on its own is a shame – and more should have been done to find a middle ground – but it is compounded by the fact that the food inside the stadiums is either non-existent or horrible. At two games I attended, there was no food available except for candy bars and bags of chips. At one of these games, we finally got our hands on a burger and it made cardboard taste like a delicacy. Really, really bad. We stopped buying at the stadium after that experience and instead smuggled our own goodies inside. (I think many people will resort to this strategy. One of the benefits of having the World Cup in a country like South Africa is that the people manning the gates are not nearly as strict as you might find in the west.)

Drinks at the stadium were less of a problem. There is the normal variety of juice and soft drinks, all charged at exorbitant prices. And there is even Budweiser. This is strange on two counts. First, beer is never sold at football matches in South Africa, a decision that was made following a deadly stampede at a game several years ago (although also an example of the still distorted racial situation in the country – beer is sold at rugby matches that are attended almost exclusively by whites). Second, Budweiser is nearly impossible to find in South Africa. This second point got me thinking about World Cup corporate sponsorships.

As with any major event, there are ‘official’ sponsors for the World Cup. These are McDonald’s, Castrol, Budweiser, Continental, Satyam and MTN. Strangely, only two of these six are readily known or even available in South Africa. Except for McDonald’s (which is everywhere) and MTN (which is the biggest cell phone company on the continent), the official sponsors are almost wholly unrecognizable to the average South African. I understand that this is a global event and there is LOTS of money to made, but this does not seem completely reasonable. Why is it that, generally speaking, the official sponsors have a tiny footprint in South Africa and seemingly invest very little in the country? The long-term economic impact of a mega-event such as the World Cup is debatable, but if FIFA partners with multinational corporations with little interest in the host country, the chances of such long-term benefit is certainly reduced. When hosting such prestigious events, especially in the developing world, organizers would do good to consider the national contributions of potential official sponsors before signing them up.

So there were some problems, as well as some discrepancies that probably deserve more attention. But in the end, the Confederation Cup was a huge success. The stadiums were beautiful. The matches were well-attended (despite some media reports to the contrary). Many of the teams commented on how well and professionally they were hosted. There were very few reports of criminal incidents. The games themselves were high quality and full of excitement. And when all was said and done Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, gave the country a 7.5 out of 10.

borosandfriendsBut perhaps the greatest achievement of the tournament is not something widely covered by the international media. This is because is an intimately national issue: unity. 15 years since the end of apartheid, South Africa is still a deeply divided country. This can be seen in every sphere of society, including sports. There are 3 major sports in South Africa. If one attends a cricket match, the crowd will be 75% white and 25% Indian. If one attends a rugby match, the crowd will be 99% white. If one attends a local football match, the crowd will be 99% black. In many countries with racial baggage, sports is one of the few parts of society that creates a bridge between otherwise divided people. In South Africa, sadly, this is rarely the case.

But the Confederation Cup was different.  I attended the semi-final between South Africa and Brazil a few nights before the final in Ellis Park. It was without a doubt the most amazing sporting event I have ever attended. The atmosphere was simply electric (to use a cliché that is 100% appropriate and accurate). The crowd was raucous, the vuvuzelas were blaring and thousands of South African flags were flying around the stadium. Brazil scored in the 88th minute to crush our hopes, but as I looked around the stadium all I could think was: “this is how South Africa could and should be.” White, black, Indian and coloured (multi-racial) South Africans filled the stadium, cheering side-by-side. If one wasn’t careful, you could forget all of the hatred, mistrust, fear and ignorance that so often frustrates the hell out of me in this country. And it was the same at every match. For 2 brief weeks, the Confederation Cup brought South Africa together. It allowed fellow citizens to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, sing Shosholoza and scream their heads off for the beautiful game.

As they are saying louder and louder these days: Woza 2010!