Two weeks ago Kelly and I were driving up to our digs, a game lodge 25 minutes from the stadium where the US would play England in the opening match. The game lodge was called Bakubung, which translated as “People of the Hippo.” When I read this I insisted on referring to the lodge as “People of the Hippo” for the duration of our trip, and it is a mark of our 18 year friendship that Kelly never seemed bothered by it.
“How far are we from People of the Hippo?” I’d ask.
“Maybe an hour,” Kelly would say. “Not much traffic from here on out.”
“Was it hard to get a room? At People of the Hippo?”
“I think we got the last one – lots of fans up there.”
The entire journey from Jo’burg to People of the Hippo, we were keeping an eye out for a bar or restaurant that might show the opening match of the World Cup, South Africa vs. Mexico. Missing the match was simply not an option. South Africa had been counting down the months, weeks, days, and now hours to the kickoff, and we absolutely had to be part of the celebration in whatever form it would take, even if we had to stop in some roadside kiosk to watch on a portable black and white TV while some dude spent the ninety minutes trying to get us to buy his carved elephant heads.
But we couldn’t even find a kiosk. This new road we were on, rebuilt especially for the World Cup, seemed to take us far from any towns, and we were whipping past the landscape at just under a hundred miles per hour.
Then we saw a sign for something called Sun City.
“That’s where we’re watching the match,” Kelly said, pointing at the sign.
“What, Sun City?”
“Sun City, baby!”
“What is it?”
“No idea. But it’s called Sun City. It’s gotta be a casino.”
“Why does it have to be a casino?”
“It’s called Sun City! What else would it be?”
Astonishingly, Kelly was right, it was a casino. Or part of it was, anyway – it was a Disneyworld type complex. It included not one but two golf courses; one a new swanky one called the Gary Player Course, and the other was a bit older. They tried to mask that fact by renaming the older one the Lost City Golf Course and including at the 13th hole – and I quote from their brochure – “a water hazard full of live Nile crocodiles.” Because what the hell, right?
There seemed to be nobody in the casino. We asked if they were showing the match somewhere inside, and the woman behind the golden bars nodded.
“They will show it on the Big TV,” she said. I noticed she had a small TV on the desk with her. “Straight down there. You will see, it is like an auditorium. It is a Big TV so you will have no problem seeing it.”
We hurried down the open corridor, past more slot machines, and came to an enormous TV, usually used for betting on sports matches, which had a small amphitheater of maybe eighty seats around it, about a quarter full.
“Awesome,” I said.
“This works,” said Kelly. “I’m gonna hit the bathroom, meet you back here.”
I was just sitting down when Kelly came back.
“Follow me,” he said.
I followed him to the other side of the amphitheatre, figuring he’d found comfy chairs or something. But he kept on walking down the hallway, and stopped in front of a fairly nondescript door on the left hand side of the hall. He opened the door for me to step through.
Have you ever seen the first movie in the Narnia series? When the kids open the closet door and inside there’s this entire world? This was that. Inside led into a cavernous, dimly lit auditorium that held, conservatively, a thousand people. And those people were bouncing up and down and blowing vuvuzelas at a screen that, if laid flat, would just about cover Atlanta.
It was quite the introduction to the World Cup. When South Africa scored the first goal, the hall exploded. Kelly and I, who were on the floor level, were suddenly caught in an avalanche of South Africans, pouring down from the seats to celebrate on the floor.
At halftime, I left for a moment to use the bathroom, and when I came back, African music was shaking the auditorium and I found myself separated from Kelly by the single largest conga line I’ve ever seen – four people wide, packed together so tightly that I couldn’t actually find a gap through. I finally cut into the line and somebody grabbed my hips and shouted “Ayoba!” and next thing I know I’m on the other side of the auditorium. I got back to Kelly, clothes practically torn from my body, to find him standing on a chair taking photos.
“You see that freakin’ conga line?” he shouted happily over the din. “That things outta control! It almost took that table with it!”
The conga line, like a snake curling in on itself, had now morphed into this enormous dance party in front of the twenty foot wide screen, so utterly euphoric that nobody actually noticed the game had resumed until it was a couple of minutes in and Mexico hit the crossbar.
The World Cup had officially begun.
Twenty four hours later, we were arriving at the real stadium for the 8:30 pm US-England match. We had spent a relaxing morning driving through the game park, spotting rhinos and elephants and the rest, and returned to the lodge to find the English fans drunk and taking about four hundred photos of the warthog that had wandered up to the electric fence.
“Iss a f’ckin’ warthog, mate!” one was slurring at his friend, who wore the English flag as a cape. “Iss not a f’ckin’ cheetah killin’ a gazelle, iss it? How many f’ckin’ photas of it are ye gonna git?”
The guy with the camera studied the back of it for a moment. “Fine – memory caad’s full up anyways,” he slurred back. “The photos of the match we’ll have te take with our minds.”
The crowd, both outside and inside the stadium, may or may not have been less drunk – it was difficult to distinguish between intoxication and vigorous enthusiasm. Fans were in bright, colorful costumes, people dressed as Uncle Sam and human flags and the Queen and everybody shouting with glee and high fiving and drinking. Combine that with the fact that Kelly and I were practically linking arms and wearing matching USA shirts and you could mistake the whole thing for a gay pride parade.
The stadium was ringed with the St. George’s Cross hanging from the upper deck, but in our own corner of the stadium, the US corner, a huge American flag was unveiled, unrolled up and over 20 rows of fans, and quickly collapsed in the minutes leading up to kickoff. The volume in the stadium was at a feverish pitch, the steady eardrum bursting drone at these events where you are not quite sure if you are even shouting.
A few rows ahead I could see two guys trying out their vuvuzelas for the first time. I couldn’t hear over the crowd noise, so it was like a silent movie, in which each of the two people – one dressed as Abe Lincoln – would blow into his vuvuzela, then look curiously at it, trying to figure out how to make the noise. Then the other would try it, and they would puzzle over it together, making exaggerated lip movements to show the other what they are doing wrong. They would point the business end of the vuvuzela at each other’s face as if it was nothing more than a child’s birthday kazoo.
The moment one of them finally stumbled upon the proper technique, I knew it not from the sound but rather because the reaction of Abe Lincoln, who’s big bearded face was a few inches from the mouth of the vuvuzela when it went off. He clutched his ears and opened his mouth in a silent scream and fell sideways into the row ahead of him, stovepipe hat spinning into the air.
The match started and the English side scored five minutes in, and continued to pressure for the rest of the game. The US side scored on a goal keeper error by England, though our celebration was no less raucous for it. Mostly, though, I just spent the game so nervous I wanted to throw up and wishing it would just end.
When it was all over we had tied. The NY Post headline the next day read: US beats England, 1-1.
Since that day, I’ve probably watched seventy five percent of the World Cup matches. For those who are less than crazy about watching international soccer, it might seem odd that one would be glued to a Chile-Honduras match, shouting at the TV, unable to leave the house, especially if one is neither Chilean nor Honduran.
But I’m telling you, there’s something about the World Cup. I get it why it’s not huge in the States. No scoring, right? What’s up with that? But it means that when they do score, man, you know it. The entire team, the entire country, flies into hysteria, even if it’s two minutes into the match.
So let’s compare to another insane tournament: the NCAA Tournament. Love that tournament. Alumni get together and go nutso in the bars. The students, forget about it – camping out for tickets and gathered in enormous halls screaming for their team. If they lose, it’s a huge bummer, yes, but they have the entire season starting next year, plus three or four other sports to hold them over until then.
In South Africa and elsewhere, digital clocks have had a countdown on for months to the start of the World Cup. It happens once every four years. Only 32 qualify. If you lose on a bad call, you’re out. That country has to wait four more years to even compete. For most South American teams, for example, this is it, this is THE sport. They play soccer. Everybody plays soccer. It’s all they care about. It’s not just your fellow alumni – it’s every father and mother and son and librarian and housekeeper and bus driver for thousands of miles in every direction, all praying that you beat that country on the other side of the world. And in that other country, there are millions of people who are praying just as hard that you lose.
As a bonus, you get play by play from an excitable commentator, who knows every player on the Brazilian side and refers to them fluently, but when they play North Korea, he says, in his proper English accent: “North Korea is trying to substitute in Pak Nam Chok. And…….oh dear…… it seems there’s already a Pak Nam Chok on the field. Oh my, this will be confusing.”
And I was glued to the TV, shouting and praying and jumping around for both of them.