Every USA fan at the Pretoria stadium will understand my irrationality. The win over the Algerians was so emotional, so exciting that I couldn't bear to watch another USA game live. In fact, I couldn't even stand a moderately emotional game so I flew to Nelspruit for the most meaningless game imaginable - North Korea vs. Ivory Coast. Both teams are out of the tournament and North Korea previously was humiliated by Portugal 0 to 7. But even the most farcical World Cup game can be an impossibly emotional event.
The Korean Fans
The official FIFA vendor within the stadium and I both spoke English but, they didn't believe I wanted to buy the North Korea shirt. They brought over a few sizes of Ivory Coast jerseys but just wouldn't hand over the North Korean shirt that I was practically touching. The counter people conferenced as I repeated my request half dozen times.
There were no North Korean fans at the game. No North Korean press. Zero North Korean presence at this most international of all events. In the seats reserved for the North Korean fans there were less than a dozen Chinese actors dutifully playing the part of North Koreans (it's an easy acting gig and you get good seats to a World Cup game). At the conclusion of the game, the North Korean team didn't bother to join the charade by crossing the field to acknowledge the actors. (See my previous blog for photos of the US team conducting this important World Cup ritual.)
I felt for the team from the hermit kingdom. They played alone on the biggest stage in the world. At the event with the greatest global social and emotional outpouring for any entertainer, they were ignored. I was embarrassed for them.
Don't minimize their understanding of the situation. They understand. A couple North Korean players had good English and said what all losing team's say: their players need experience in the European leagues, they need to adopt European styles and techniques. They need to build upon their core team. The US said the same after the 1994 Cup (and every Cup before and after). Rephrased - "We need to become more internationalist, less nativist." Yes - there is a commonality and yes it is true.
The South African Fans
The magnificent new stadium in Nelspruit was a sell-out of mostly South Africans. The stadium's infrastructure supports were crafted to look like giraffes while the black and white seats were arranged to resemble zebra stripes. Beautiful, and symbolic.
Before Mandela, sport was as segregated as society. Soccer was for black South Africans and rugby for white South Africans. It was so exclusive that they didn't even bother with tokenism. Of course, the World Cup is above racism and this crowd was as black and white as the zebra color scheme for the stadium seats.
Walking back to the bus, vuvuzellas gave way to stomp dances. Stomp dances to the call and response of traditional soccer sports songs. I think the songs sound like Hugh Masekela's coal train song; "Stimila" but both black and white South Africans sing and clap and stomp while us non-Africans can only enjoy with our ears and eyes.
On the bus, the white guy next to me wears a South African Rugby hat and speaks Afrikaaners to his kids. With a ruddy face and actual red neck, he's the picture of the malevolent character in the movies. The equivalent of an American Krewe Kut Klan member. Except he sings. Sings in Zulu. And he's so exuberant by the singing that he begins telling me the words of the song. Then the meaning of the words. Then the meaning of what is happening at the World Cup. In this bus right now and in the stadiums and cities of South Africa and most importantly, in South African's heads he tells me something amazing is happening.
He tells me how much he loves rugby and how South Africa hosted and won such a dramatic World Cup of Rugby that the event was captured as the movie Invictus (Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon). Yes, he loves rugby but he tells me; "The soccer World Cup is so different. Better, much, much better. All these people coming together. You know South Africa has already been knocked out of the tournament and nobody cares about this (North Korea/ Ivory Coast) game but the stadium was sold out and listen, listen to the crowd! It's not like rugby. It doesn't matter who wins or loses. This is a celebration of all nations. Of all people. This is the best experience I have ever had." He goes back to singing the Zulu soccer songs.
Then it happens – the bus is nearing our departure area and someone starts singing the national anthem of South Africa. An anthem that carefully balances a century-old prayer with the modern freedom chant of the African National Congress. The vuvuzelas stop playing. The Afrikaner raises his vuvuzela into an ad hoc military salute and then all the South Africans on the bus, black, white and the Afrikaner government's 16 gradients in between, join in on the South African national anthem. And he shouts selected words for emphasis;
He's no longer trying to bring me along. This moment is for him. This is for his country. This is for his South African brothers and sisters. This is what this World Cup is about – the living embodiment of freedom, equality and harmony between people. A celebration of vastly different cultures. And somewhere deeply buried in this experience, soccer games occasionally break out.
My friends are crying. The Afrikaner is telling me this could only happen in South Africa. I know better, it happens in different forms at every World Cup.
The hermit-like North Korean government has purposely excluded their people from this beautiful experience.
What is stopping you?
Saturday midnight until Sunday 3am - roots music that defies categorization