The weeks went by in a blur; a montage of matches, celebrations, late nights in hostels and bars.
June became July, and as the World Cup progressed toward the final the visiting nations decreased and departed, having lost. The number of games grew more infrequent; staggered out over the remaining weeks, each match more significant than the last.
The tournament begins as a frenzy of excitement, a trifecta of games each day, the persisting echo of 32 national anthems bellowing down overflowed roads. For nearly two weeks attendees exist in a constant chatter of who’s won, who’s lost, who’s next, did you see that goal? that save? that loss?
By the quarterfinals, just 8 nations remaining, time spreads out. Hours, then whole days spaced between the final matches. Those who remain in the host nation find themselves with new opportunity in which to explore, to exist, to observe, to develop daily routines, to simply be in South Africa.
Back at B’s bar in Joburg. Familiar faces in the same spots we’d left them. An eager crowd pleased to have their random Americans back, taking advantage of newfound ears.
Zimbabwe, aye, is a mess. You know Mugabe? Maniac, he is. Real shame aye. He was actually quite similar to Mandela, growin up, he was very similar, at first, aye. Grew up in Rhodesia when it was ruled by white men. Thrown in jail tryin to protest it and all that. Despite the parallels, Mugabe was not Mandela, his journey out of jail took him in a different direction, he felt Mandela “too much of a saint”. Wasn’t enough, he thought. Mugabe wanted revenge, and he wanted to hold on to power until he died. The decades ticked on toward 2010 and Mugabe was still in charge, grown more vengeful, against all his subjects, as they were, with every year. The trouble led to a steady stream of Zimbabweans fleeing, escaping into South Africa, hopeful for something different. The bar dwellers, like the receptors of fleeing neighbors the world over, lamented the newcomers were taking their jobs.
Aye but South Africa’s not perfect either. Zuma’s a joker. Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, leader of the party inherited from Mandela, was increasingly unpopular, and famous for remarks such as: the way to prevent AIDs was to wear a condom, women who didn’t want to be raped shouldn’t wear short skirts. His response to combatting racism, sexism, homophobia, was to say he didn’t believe in ‘ism’s’ of any kind.
The World Cup was all well and good, here’s to hoping and changing and all that, but I sensed they wanted to ensure the tourists flocking in with FIFA left with more than just rainbow vuvuzelas, they wanted us to leave with understanding; understanding of their flaws, but understanding of their growth, too.
It was a refrain we heard again and again, go back home and tell them this, go home and tell them that. Tell them we changed, tell them we haven’t. A country all too aware of their claim to fame in the world. Tell them something different, different mlfrom what they’ve been hearing, and, what have they been hearing? When you go home, girls, tell all your friends to come and see.
When I think of South Africa I think of football, but more than that I think of the people so eager to let us in to see their lives, insistent we report back and tell all our friends to come and see them too.
When I think of Joburg I think of endless streets flying past me, from the window in B’s car, listening to the techno beats he makes himself on full blast no matter how early in the morning. I think of the bar round the corner from his and long talks over pool. I remember nights dancing at Cool Runnings, like a Joburger, like you don’t care, aye.
I think of B, always laughing, cracking jokes, trying to explain to us this or that, his giant tattoo stretching across his stomach, a map of the world inked on. He goes back to the tattoo shop and fills in each country he visits in green. He intends to fill it up.
The golden rule of traveling, he’d said, is that when travelers visit your country you go out of your way, absolutely out of your way, show them all your favorite spots, aye. You do everything you can to help them, and when you go round traveling, they’ll do everything they can to help you too. Aye, remember that.
I do remember. I also remember a blissful day learning how to be a South African male. How to Be a South African Male Day, B named it, organizing a party to explain. Just remember the three ‘B’s: beer, biltong, and braii. And rugby. The rugby doesn’t work with the alliteration though aye.
Beer: Black Label or Castle would be best. Biltong: South Africa’s far superior answer to what can best be compared to beef jerky. And braii: a bbq. We’re religious with our braiis here aye. B fired up his grill and filled it with all kinds of meat, every kind of meat, called over his friends and turned on a recording of an old rugby championship, South Africa vs. New Zealand.
The day after we learned to be South African males we visited Pilanesburg, a national park and game reserve, for a mini safari with an enormous ex-rugby player nearly too big to fit in his car. He speckled his stories about the animals with stories about everything else, pointing out everything excitedly, including a lion eating a dead elephant, as just being real lekker aye (Pronounced leck-ah, South African slang for cool).
After weeks of back to back football, we had days in Joburg to spend only on Joburg. The days felt a luxury. We filled it with life; South African life, the Joburger kind. We wandered, we ate, we talked to people at restaurants, we talked to people at bars, we asked what their life was like, they asked what our life was like.
We luxuriated in the free time, gathering conversations and memories like souvenirs. But by the time our next game came round we woke up electric, not realizing how much we’d missed it.
July 2nd Uruguay was to play Ghana at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. The quarterfinals before a crowd of 94,000, and we’d be there to watch.
Like a missed bus that leads you down a path to new friends, football tragedy can turn to gold. Still a bit mournful we weren’t watching the Americans take on Uruguay, we’d soon forget our misery. There we were, dots in the expanse of the largest stadium yet, Africa’s last team playing for the semi’s, a crowd lit up in Ghana’s red and gold, speckled with Uruguay’s light blue, abuzz with vuvuzela, and then, the game.
Ghana, Africa’s last best hope. A diverse continent of complex history, of fragmented cohesion, joined together in hope and pride: FIFA’s first World Cup in Africa. All eyes on Ghana. All the continent was leaning behind them, willing them onward toward the semis. They’d make history if they did, the first African team to progress that far. Our friends implored us you must cheer for Ghana, aye.
Soccer City’s 94 thousand crowd felt an enormity compared to the stadiums thus far. A dome like structure enveloping the field below, Ghana walked on to the roar of the crowd dressed to match them.
And Uruguay, dressed in their light blue, La Celeste outnumbered but grown louder with each game.
Uruguay came out strong after the whistle, but Ghana warded off their goals, keeping the multiple attempts at bay, slowly warming up.
Uruguay came out stronger but were second to score. It was Ghana’s Suleyman Muntari, in the extra time of the first half, 47 minutes of play with a shot curling round the goalie from 35 yards out, that sent the crowd into halftime in a vuvuzela roar. Uruguay 0, entire continent and world, 1.
But it wasn’t long into the second half before Uruguay answered back. Forlan on a free kick at 55 minutes. Forlan, blonde hair flowing, always even and cool, a contrast to his partner in crime Luis.
The second half, tied at 1, was full of chances on both ends but none that bore any fruit and as the clock ticked toward 90 we assumed ourselves an extra time.
And then, in the final minutes, just as the crowd was counting on the whistle, they counted a goal for Ghana instead. A header from Dominic Adiyiah sent toward the center of the net, spinning past Fernando Muslera.
But as the ball poised to enter the net, already beyond Musleria, a rogue man in light blue emerged, swatting the goal away as though suddenly this were volleyball. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Neither had the other 94,000 people around me, judging by their shouts.
It was a victory so near the crowd had begun to cheer for it. The ball intended to go in the net, Muslera and his defenders not positioned to stop it.
The only thing that could stop the ball and Ghana from winning, was Luis Suarez’ hands, and so he used them, betting on a penalty that in the end would go his way.
They sent him off as the crowd guffawed, disbelieving. Asomoah took the penalty, the crowd sure it would go in, it had to, but it didn’t. Gyan’s penalty hit the crossbar. Suarez, a jumping speck, was jubilant from the sideline watching Gyan miss the penalty awarded in the goals place. I can still see Asmoah Gyan, hands to face.
The game would go into extra time before a crowd furious with revenge. But still, no goals.
And so penalties would settle it. Gyan, recovering from his miss, took the first kick, seemingly un-phased, and made it. But it wasn’t enough, two of his comrades to follow would send their attempts into Muslera’s arms, and they’d lose in penalties 4–2.
The Ghanaians collapsed on the field, a portrait of devastation, unable to stand.
And so in a handball far more flagrant than Thierry’s, Ghana would join the teams sent home. Africa, robbed of its last chance for a pretty ending to their world cup. Suarez, still celebrating on the sideline.
Late into the night, having arrived back to B’s bar following the match, we mulled over and over the injustice. For days and weeks that followed, the fans the anchors the newspapers did too.
Was it brilliant, or was it cruel? Hero or villain? La Celeste chose the former, rallying round their raucous king. Some deemed it brilliant, Suarez named a tactician, he’d saved his team!
As for the Ghanaians, the consensus was unanimous. Robbed of history, hearts broken that day. 8 years on reporters would still ask, and they’d still say the same.