I’m here in South Africa, and last night went to the see the Argentina-Mexico game at Soccer City. I’ll warn you that a portion of this post will sound a bit like FIFA propaganda, so if you can’t stand that please stop reading now. But the feeling here in electric and ebullient, and I really can’t imagine any other event that could produce the same thing. I felt happily overwhelmed at the scene last night.
I was welcomed by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nutall, who are hosting a kind of wandering seminar on the World Cup at there home these weeks — yesterday I watched the England-Germany game with Joseph-Antoine Bell, legendary Cameroonian goal-keeper (more on that later!). You can see Achille’s mean vuvuzela skills (and his excellent hat) below.
On the double-decker bus in from the Park and Ride to the stadium we met a seven-year-old South African boy and his father. They were heading to their sixth game, and the kid looked determined and cool as he headed into a long night. The father was yawning. The next day, they were headed to Durban. As a simple answer to all the questions and cost-benefit analyses of whether the World Cup is good or bad for South Africa, there was this. He would clearly remember these weeks forever. He would in all likelihood never been able to see this – the tens of thousands of people and tongues, Messi on the field – if the Cup had not come to South Africa.
I also discovered happily (and this sounds less like FIFA propaganda) that local merchants had managed to push back successfully, and in some ways outwit, FIFA. There was much talk before the tournament about the fact that FIFA would not allow any kind of merchandizing, that they had trademarked pretty much anything you could sell – the words “South African 2010,” the word “World Cup.” What they weren’t able to do was trademark nations or their flags, or the all important vuvuzelas. The merchants also kindly offered earplugs for sale. Along the several kilometer walk from the bus stop to the stadium, there were hundreds of merchants selling all of these, doing brisk business as people transformed themselves into Argentina or Mexico fans for the night, and stocked up on those vuvuzelas. They were, to all appearances, doing much better than the super-overpriced official stores set up within the stadium complex.
Before I left the U.S. someone told me the NCAA – seeming fearing an influx of them in the hands of World Cup visitors from the U.S. – has already taken care to announce that these instruments would not be allowed in collegiate games next year. But, at the risk of generating more ire than I could by making fun of Lionel Messi, I’m going to admit it: I like the vuvuzela. On the walk in, they were a constant call and response within the crowd, part of the march. And in the stadium they are wonderful, modulating with what is going on the field, creating intricate games of sound between different parts of the stadium. This doesn’t communicate on television, of course, but I immediately got the attraction. And watching an eclectic mix of fans from throughout the world blowing into their just-bought vuvuzelas – with mixed success, for they are hard to blow, as I discovered when my first several tries created a pathetic little creak – is excellent.
And so, of course, were Argentina. When I got to my seat a friendly Irishman draped in his flag asked if I would swap seats with his buddy a few rows down so they could sit together. I accepted, figuring it was a sort of penance for being a fan of Thierry Henry and the French team who had made it so they could support theirs at the World Cup. As a result I got to watch the match next to a hilarious chain-smoking sixty-year-old Argentinian from Rosario, who let out of string of absolutely harsh and totally unprintable insults at his team for basically the entire ninety minutes. (On my right, meanwhile, was a totally silent, long-haired Japanese man wearing a hood and glasses, who erupted into nods and cheers with each goal).
Yes, my Argentinian friend smiled a little when they scored one after another. But, he complained, they really weren’t playing well on defense, as he kept pointing out helpfully to them each time they flubbed their positions against the Mexican team. He wasn’t allowed to smoke in the stadium, I knew as he bathed me in second-hand smoke, but it was clear the guy needed his cigarettes. An Australian in front of us told him he couldn’t smoke, but the man with impeccable logic pointed to sky, telling him “We’re outside, what’s the big deal?” Eventually he was repressed by the local authorities, who wanted to actually take his cigarette away but were satisfied when he smashed it on the ground. He proceed to eat pungent cough-drops for the rest of the match. Still, he seemed pleased – a little — when I told him I thought his team would probably win the Cup. “We’ll beat Germany,” he said, “and I’m not worried about Brazil. It’s Spain I’m worried about.”
Is it wrong, somehow, that I could be filled with delight by Argentina while this man, clearly an intense lifelong fan, lived the whole night as a stressful experience? To each fan their form of obsession, I suppose.
The Mexican fans were beautifully decked out and spirited last night, but of course rapidly turned gloomy. The South African security guards had the unenviable job of dealing with various tussles between a tightly packed group of intertwined Mexico and Argentina fans, both after Argentina’s third goal and at the end of the match. A bit of beer was thrown at one unfortunate policeman, who was impeccably controlled about the whole thing. Then – here comes the FIFA propaganda, or else one of those World Cup commercials – some Mexico fans waded into the Argentinian side of the stand-off and began waving flags and jumping up and down, patting the enemy fans on the back, and the action seemed to calm everything down.
The common response to Maradona, of course, (at least in the Anglophone world) seems to be a bit of embarrassment at his “antics.” You can pick your reason why he’s a bit unseemly: the “hand of God”; the cocaine addiction and alcoholism, insulting journalists, FIFA, Pelé (telling the legend to “go back to the museum”!), Platini; that he has not just a Che Guevara tattoo (nothing special there) but a Fidel Castro one too; and so on. But Maradona makes me happy. When he jumps around in his hilariously dignified grey suit on the sidelines as he team scores one goal after another, he makes me happy. He makes me happy when he insults FIFA, who since they control the world at this point need at least some token opposition, and he’s the perfect one to issue it since for many in the world he literally incarnates the joy and madness of football they seek to trademark for themselves.
I like him because the one glimmer of interest my seven-year-old son showed in the World Cup came when I pointed to Maradona and told him that he had declared that if he won the competition he would run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires. Many Argentinians, I assured my son, would join him. That, it seemed, was finally a good reason to root for one team over another.
But most of all, Maradona makes me happy because he has coached a team whose philosophy is to score more goals than the other team, rather than to prevent the other team from scoring. Last night they may have not been so good defensively, as my chain-smoking friend told me. But they scored the goals on the other end, lots of them, cheeky and stunning.
Maradona makes me happy because given how crazy this whole thing – the World Cup, and the world for which it is the cup – really is, he seems to me to make the most sense within it. The World Cup, above all, is a test of mental control, and soul, for any team. It seems to me that having Maradona on the sidelines lights up his team, gives them the mad confidence, the headlong rush, that they need. Many teams in this World Cup have had incredible rosters but seemed strangely fragile on the pitch. (I’m politely avoiding any direct mention of that earlier game yesterday, since the sight of various English fans last night, some literally walking around alone muttering to themselves with red eyes, was too much to bear, but that’s of course exhibit A.) The Argentina team doesn’t. They seem like they know they should be there, they know what to do, and they are going to do it. Or so it seems now.
Tonight, Brazil-Chile. I’m looking forward to the vuvuzela-samba mix.