Two days after the World Cup final, the whole event seems slightly surreal. I’m returning from South Africa today, having survived on my last day here a gauntlet of baboons and a march up a gorgeous mountain, after arriving on the 26th of June just in time to see Ghana beat the U.S. I’ve had the privilege of watching seven games, including the Cape Town semi-final and the final in Johannesburg. I’ve come to know and love the vuvuzela — and, yes, I’m bringing one home to blow at Duke soccer matches this fall. It was rapture on many levels, and now it’s passed.
Critics of the World Cup and the enthusiasm it inspires often insist on the fact that for all the talk of football creating understanding, toleration, and communication, this global tournament is ultimately a brief moment, even a fantasy, with little broader impact on structures of oppression and domination. They point out the ways in which the tournament actually reproduces those structures in many ways. All of this is right, to a point, and yet misses the point as well. For the World Cup is what it is precisely because it is slightly out of time, and out of place in the world.
As I arrived at the final I saw all around me the same expression I was wearing: a slightly dazed, blissful grin that said simply “I can’t believe I’m here.”
The last game was both frustrating and riveting. I went into it already partial to the Spanish team, whose play had elated me when I saw the Spain-Paraguay game in the stadium and during the Spain-Germany game a few days later, which I watched in a seaside restaurant on the Cape peninsula. But I appreciated Holland too, for the Uruguay-Holland game in the Cape was an amazing game, flowing and performative, fascinating and strangely calming to watch live. My sympathy for the Dutch evaporated rapidly, though, during the final. They had clearly decided – the coach basically admitted as much – that they were not as good as the Spanish, and that they had to play a kind of anti-football, using physical confrontations and fouling as a tool of the trade.
In a sense you can understand this, and yet it was probably the wrong choice. Had they done otherwise, they might have come even less close to winning, but they also could have left a very different mark with their final appearance. To see both teams playing all out in the flowing way they are capable of would have been a massive gift to all of us. Instead, we were pissed off for most of the match. Fans booed the referee, and there was and is widespread complaining about him, but in a sense he was put in a relatively impossible situation by the play itself. As the game slipped through overtime, I couldn’t believe we were about to live what to me was the ultimate nightmare: a final between two great, unique teams, determined by penalty kicks. Then: Iniesta arrived, saint and savior. Along with much of the stadium, I exploded at that goal, hitting the seat, jumping up and down, screaming to heaven. It was an astounding finish.
Here’s a few moments from the final you might have missed, as I’m not sure they showed up on TV. First, when Sepp Blatter came onto the field, he was roundly booed by much of the stadium. It was interesting and little mysterious. There are certainly many reasons to boo FIFA, and yet we were also all there to watch the show he had put on.
It’s true that many of has just spent nearly an hour in lines waiting for food only to find out that it had ran out, thanks to FIFA’s idiotic insistence at having only it’s own franchise sell a tiny menu of bad food, rather than allowing local vendors who would have supplied us (as they did outside the stadium) with delicious grilled meats, rice, and a panoply of other foods. Instead, I got – seriously – a hotdog (hallal lamb, its true) without a bun in a paper bag. Happily, though, everyone was so psyched to be there that our wait in line turned into a jovial exchange about where we were from, the World Cup, South Africa, and the absurdity of our situation. (Conversations in the packed men’s bathrooms were similarly jovial.) Maybe the boos came from hunger? They were repeated at the time of the presentation of the trophy, loudly. The referee was also booed, which I found a little appalling actually. Booing Blatter seemed fine to me, and yet its motivations still puzzle me a little.
The other moment that I don’t think was broadcast was a nearly-successful attempt by a streaker to actually get to the World Cup as it sat on display before the game. He came bursting onto the field, trailed by several guards, and as he approached the Cup he pulled something out of his pocket. I thought at the time it was a bag, as if he was planning to stick the trophy in a little bag… and go where, exactly? But someone later gave me a better explanation for the prank: he had a little red velvet hat that he wanted to put on the Cup so that, just for a moment, it could be wearing what a little Spanish hat: he wanted, effectively, to claim the Cup for Spain proactively. He almost did it too except that one of the officials in a suit stepped in front of the Cup and gave a nice block which sent him sprawling on the ground. Later, when the Spanish ran around the field with the trophy, another man also tried to get to the Cup. My recommendation to both would have been to do what I and many other tourists did: buy a nice replica of the cup, made out of beads and wires by South African artisans, for a reasonable 200 Rand.
Watching the scenes of elation on the field after the game was spell-binding. I knew that this was a massive moment for Spain, for its history of regional conflict, for its construction as a nation. There’s a book to be written about that – perhaps our contributor Joaquin Bueno will be the one who writes it – and about the theatre on the field, during which Puyol and Xavi paraded with a Catalan flag in the midst of the celebration of Spanish victory. There was also something gut-wrenching about watching the Spanish receive the trophy while the Dutch team sprawled and wandered in desperation at hearing the words no football team ever wants to hear: “runner-up.” Van Brockhorst, whose amazing semi-final goal against Uruguay was along with Tshabala’s first goal probably the best of the tournament, looked particularly dejected.
Then we all hobbled home, through the Johannesburg night, and woke up in a totally different world.
In South Africa, the last few days have seen an outpouring of discussion of precisely what the legacy of all of this is. For at least four years, even more, the country has prepared to host an event that lasted a month. Now that event is over, and the question is what, precisely, it actually was, and what it did. It was, by all accounts, a huge success, indeed a vindication. The many fears recycled especially in the European media for years evaporated. Instead visitors had an incredible experience overall. Even the fans behaved: indeed, last night on the news a British official even boasted that not a single English fan had been arrested for bad behavior – a miracle of sorts!
To make that happen took a massive effort, of course, and also some juridical innovations. South Africa set up special “World Cup” courts with rapid sentencing for any who committed crimes during the tournament, a unique “state of exception” that apparently the Brazilians are already interested in learning about from the South Africans in preparation for 2014. But there was also a massive campaign whose message to South African citizens was that they were essentially all responsible for making the Cup a success. Throughout the tournament, as crime rates remained low, people joked constantly that the criminals turned out to be patriots too, politely putting off their activities while the eyes of the world were on South Africa.
Today, however, one of the major stories in South Africa surrounds rumors that, now that the World Cup is over, there will be attacks against immigrants from outside Africa in the country, as there were in 2008. Many are already fleeing the country, while the police force is mobilizing to respond to such attacks. A few acts of looting of foreign-owned stores have already taken place. But it’s not clear precisely whether the rumors reflect reality or, as is so often the case, are in the process of creating it. On the news last night, some township residents lamented the departure of foreigners, who own many convenience stores that are now shuttered, making it more difficult and expensive for residents to get food. This crisis will be a major test: if communities, and the nation as a whole, can protect foreign residents and prevent violence, it will suggest that something has indeed changed.
The structures built for the World Cup meanwhile, most importantly public transportation systems that were long-needed but never completed, will present another test. If they can be maintained as safe and efficient transportation, that will be one immediate, and daily, legacy from the World Cup in South Africa.
What, meanwhile, do all those who watched games, near and far, take from this. That is the toughest question to answer. We disperse, individually carrying this massive collective experience. We’ve glimpsed an alternative space, one composed of people from all over sharing a common story, full of absurdities and twists and turns, random and even futile but yet perfect because it is common. We’ve come like pilgrims looking for something, but perhaps return not precisely sure what we’ve found.