Adventures at the World Cup: South Africa Edition

Originally published on July 16, 2010.

It’s been a little over a week since I left South Africa, and I’m at the crucial equilibrium of no longer being jet lagged and still remembering every detail. The trip lasted a total of 16 days, including travel days, and we split our time between Johannesburg (4 days) and Cape Town (9 days). Those 16 days were the best two weeks of my life. South Africa is a beautiful and dynamic country, and being there for the first African-hosted World Cup was an electrifying experience. If you’ve read any of my writing you know how much I love my lists, so here’s a list of things I learned in South Africa. Enjoy!

1) The World Cup brings together a pretty awesome collection of people
Soccer fans are fun and a little crazy. Soccer fans who travel to the World Cup are rowdy and pretty much insane. Soccer fans who travel all the way to South Africa for the World Cup? Absolute mayhem. It’s the kind of atmosphere where you love your team and love everyone else around you. You make friends from all over the world — Europe, South America, Australia, America, Mexico…and every person you meet has a crazy story and a fun-loving personality to go with it. Best story we heard? Meet Ian, a quiet British kid staying in a tent outside our hostel. On the way to dinner we’re all talking about our lives, our jobs, where we’re from, etc. A good 45 minutes into the conversation we finally learn that Ian spent the past 365 days biking from England to Cape Town. Yes, biking. Oh and he made a pit stop along the way to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At some point in the Sahara he ran out of water and didn’t think he would make it, until he came across a group of nomads who took him to a Moroccan army base. If that kid doesn’t have a blog I’m quitting. Our other favorite encounter was with some boisterous Germans after Germany vs. Ghana. The story begins with Craig, who has a strange fascination with the German national anthem, and spent a good amount of time coming up with his personal version (part 1). When we ran into these Deutschland fans we immediately begged them to teach Craig the anthem so we wouldn’t have to hear “Volkswageeeen” any longer. They happily agreed (part 2). To complete the cultural exchange they surprised us with a German accented rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame (part 3). Trust me, you want to watch this video.

2) South Africans love their meat
The first word I learned was braai, the Afrikaans term for barbecue. I learned it before I learned how to say “Where’s the bathroom?”, because braai is significantly more important than any essential bodily function. South Africans barbecue an average of three times a week, so all you grill-crazy Americans are officially owned. Factor in that they can barbecue through the winter AND have ostrich, kudu, and all sorts of game available…you can just give up now. We had our braai experience at Mzoli’s outside of Cape Town where you order meat by the pound, wait two hours for it to cook while you drink at the beer garden, and then devour it caveman style.

Mzoli’s in Capetown

3) Soccer City owns Cowboys Stadium
Step aside Jerry Jones, Cowboys stadium might be snazzy but nothing beats the aesthetic beauty of Soccer City. You can see the stadium from all over Johannesburg and it catches your breath every time. Designed to look like an African pot, it seats almost 85,000 fans. I’ve never seen anything like it in the US, where all the focus is on giant flat screens and high priced club seats. We watched Germany vs. Ghana here and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg

4) Sharks look like stuffed animals
Seal Island, home to 60,000 Cape Fur Seals, and Dyer Island, home to thousands of African Penguins, form the shallow channel called Shark Alley off the coast of Gansbaai. Shark Alley is home to the highest concentration of Great White sharks in the world…hello Shark Week. We went shark cage diving with Brian McFarland, a shark hunter turned researcher when hunting was outlawed, and it was easily the coolest thing I’ve ever done. The sharks were surprisingly not terrifying at all, and I’m pretty sure it had to do with the complete lack of movement in their eyes (they’re almost blind), so they looked like giant stuffed animals. They were pretty nonthreatening and could have easily bitten off a foot or hand since we were holding on to the cage bars. Here are a couple pics, keep in mind my underwater disposable camera had no zoom…

5) The world is scared of the potential in US soccer
One of my new-found Brazilian friends put it perfectly after the US lost to Ghana: “You Americans use a bazooka to kill a fly.” If the US devotes itself to soccer similar to football, baseball, and basketball, we WILL dominate. The amount of money and athletic talent in this country is unparalleled, and so much of it is wasted in the NBA and NFL funnel. If you take half the kids whose football and basketball careers end in college and put them into soccer from the get-go, America will be at the forefront of the international scene and will internally develop the sport itself to another level. It’s already there at the grassroots level, almost every kid growing up plays soccer for a few years, there’s just no incentive to keep at it. The soccer market needs to grow significantly, and it probably won’t happen after this World Cup. But the US team is only going to get better, they just need some young talent to fill a couple roster holes, and the time will come when Brazil 2014 hits. The entire world knows it, I had countless conversations with people from Europe, South America, Africa, etc. about this topic, and they’re all nervously anticipating the inevitable rise of American soccer.

6) It’s a rude awakening each time you realize how recently apartheid ended
On our way to Soweto we drove by the prison in downtown Johannesburg. Our driver shuddered, “I hate that place. So many bad memories.” We asked why. “I was imprisoned there for a year.” We asked why. He proceeded to tell us a story about his teenage self playing soccer in the park with some friends when cops walked over demanding to see their identity cards, a regulation under apartheid that specified an individual’s racial group. They had left their cards at home so they could play soccer and were thrown into jail. He’s in his early 30s. By far the most jarring part of this trip was the constant realization that apartheid happened in everyone’s lifetime. Every generation has a story to tell and every person has a vivid memory of South Africa 16 years ago. It’s an unsettling experience to talk to someone your age about their memories of the Soweto uprising. We visited the Apartheid Museum and for each date on the wall I could recall how old I was and where I was in my life.

Apartheid museum in Johannesburg

7) Craziest fans — Spain and Brazil
We encountered fans from all 32 World Cup nations, and by my scientific and well-researched standards, the most enthusiastic (i.e. insane) fans were the Brazil and Spain supporters. Brazil is an obvious one, they’re the Yankees/Lakers/Cowboys of soccer. They have (originally bandwagon) fans from all over the world and have the strongest history as the only team to appear in every World Cup and with the most championships. It’s a sheer numbers game, more fans = more crazy people. But then there’s Spain, a team with zero World Cup championships (until now). Maybe it was the very real potential for that first championship that lit a fire under Spain fans, but they were at another level of fandom. We were lucky enough to get caught in the middle of a massive group of Espana fans outside the Spain vs. Portugal match, so I’ll let you see for yourself.

8) South Africans are a lot friendlier than New Yorkers
TIA…This is Africa. It’s a slang term we heard all over, and it basically means “hey, it is what it is, just go with it!” TIA combined with Shakira’s Waka Waka song provides a pretty accurate portrayal of the South African attitude — easygoing with a great sense of humor, and proud of a beautiful culture. Everyone we met was a joy to talk to, and at least half of what I learned came from our random conversations with friendly South Africans who went out of their way to tell us about their lives, experiences, and favorite places to eat. There was our hostel security guard from the Congo who left his studies there when the warfare escalated. He told us to try the ostrich at Nelson’s Eye steakhouse where the owner, a retired surfer, told us about his shark encounters and discussed the differences between soccer and rugby fans. We stopped along the Waterfront for info on a boat cruise, and the captain gave us a full tour while telling stories from his time in the Navy. The waiter at our first restaurant in Joburg practically died of laughter after successfully convincing us there was a 200 Rand minimum per person, and our waiter at Cape Malay gave us free appetizers with the phone number of his best friend who owns a racetrack in San Diego so we could get tickets. We learned about the underground hip-hop scene from the kid working at the Puma store, and our cabbie from the airport showed us his favorite African trance songs. Some Americans we met thought the friendliness was a facade so foreigners would leave with a good impression of South Africa. Call me naive, but I didn’t see anything artificial about it. I saw a desire to finally show the world how far South Africa has come, and genuine pride in the culture and beauty of the country.

Capetown waterfront

9) Ronaldo is the T.O. of soccer
That’s Cristiano Ronaldo, mind you. Felt the need to clarify after a friend got into an angry shouting match with a female Cristiano fan for wearing THE Ronaldo’s jersey. I make the above claim pretty loosely because obviously T.O. is a joke at this point, but in his prime he was the diva of the NFL, and if there’s one word to describe Cristiano Ronaldo it’s diva. For all you people who hate the way soccer players dramatize every trip and scrape, he is the king of acting. Everyone hates him, the entire crowd started booing the first time he dove and clutched his leg at the Portugal vs. Spain match. You could see the look of disgust on Puyol’s face when he helped him up, and I’m pretty sure he whispered in Ronaldo’s ear to cut the crap. Here’s the thing though, the guy is good. There’s a reason he’s considered one of the best players in the world, he’s skilled and he’s lightning fast. Watching it live is even better, he could run circles around the guys out there. I say we get him on a reality show with the NFL’s finest divas. I can just imagine T.O. breaking down into tears when he realizes Ronaldo dresses better than him, “that’s my style!”, or Ronaldo teaching Jay Cutler how to use hair gel and have illegitimate children. Come on MTV make it happen.

Spain v Portugal in Capetown

10) God Bless America-n fans
Those of you who think US fandom will never extend to soccer are severely underestimating two things: how much Americans love America, and how much Americans love watching America win. When Brazil 2014 comes around and the US team is stronger than ever, we’ll see fandom at its finest. We were unfortunately in Cape Town for the US vs. Ghana match and couldn’t make it out to Rustenberg. So instead all the Americans staying in hostels across Cape Town rounded up and took over a bar on Long Street. We sang our hearts out for the Star Spangled Banner.

11) Standing on the tip of the African continent makes you feel like Captain Planet
Pictures say it all.

12) We all need vuvuzela rehab
No they are not annoying and yes they are that fun. It’s an addiction. They’re everywhere and each time you see one the urge kicks in. I know everyone’s dreading it, but I can’t wait to bring all 16 of mine to the Monday Night Jets vs. Pats game. Hey Brady, you thought those cardboard Bridget Moynahan faces were startling? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

13) “Don’t feed the animals” takes on a new meaning in Africa
I came home to a squirrel scampering up a tree, and in my exhausted state I stared at it for a good five minutes waiting for it to transform into a giraffe. American wildlife you failed me. We saw a pretty great assortment of animals between our safari, shark diving expedition, and drive down to Cape Point. It was like watching The Lion King morph with Madagascar.

Penguin colony in Simonstown

14) Mandela’s presence is everywhere
The admiration and love South Africans have for Nelson Mandela is omnipresent. You can see it in the Mandela paintings hanging around the city, you can see it in the Mandela exhibit at the Apartheid Museum, and you can hear it in their voices every time they say his name. Our tour guide at Robben Island was an ex-political prisoner who was imprisoned at the same time as Mandela, and hearing him talk about their days on the island while looking into the cell where Mandela lived for 27 years was a powerful and unforgettable experience.

15) South Africa proved the world wrong
Leading up to the World Cup there were doubts raised throughout the media — Will the stadiums be ready? Isn’t it too dangerous? Is the infrastructure strong enough? Is South Africa ready to host the world’s largest sporting event? One month later and South Africa proved the world wrong. There wasn’t a single moment during the entire two weeks of my trip where I felt unsafe or unable to do what I wanted to do.

Technicalities aside, the atmosphere at the first African-hosted World Cup was electrifying. The South African energy was contagious, I wanted to learn the Waka Waka dance the second I saw a mall full of people doing it, and my first purchase was a Bafana Bafana track jacket. People’s faces lit up when we told them how much we loved South Africa, and so many responses were “Come back! There’s so much more to see!” The entire country got behind Ghana once South Africa was eliminated, and literally the only thing that could have put a smile on my face after the US loss was walking out onto Long Street and seeing a mass of people singing “It’s time for Africa!”

A question that was constantly in the back of my mind was how beneficial the World Cup would actually be for South Africa. It without a doubt served the purpose of uniting a country to show the world how amazing South Africa is, and the tourism industry made a killing off the increased prices for lodging, transportation, souvenirs, tours, etc. But the money spent on preparing the country was at another level as well, especially considering the lack of future use for new places like Soccer City stadium.

victory parade in Capetown

I left South Africa full of thoughts that even a 32 hour itinerary back couldn’t conquer. Going to South Africa for the World Cup was a trip of a lifetime, and I came out with two resolutions:
1) Return to South Africa and see all the things I didn’t get to see
2) Brazil 2014 here I come…