The Best Match of the 2010 World Cup

We were sitting high in the corner of the Free State stadium, and the afternoon sun shone directly at us. There was no breeze. It was by far the warmest soccer match I'd been to. I left my jacket on my seat and moved up a row to keep my legs in the sun but cool my head in the shade of the stadium's rim. Such nice weather, yet it seemed it would be wasted on the worst game of the entire 2010 World Cup.

South Africa was going to play France. In their previous two matches against other teams, South Africa had scored only one goal and France had scored exactly none. In their loss a few days earlier, South Africa had been pummeled by Uruguay 3-0, the largest defeat ever suffered by a host nation in the first round of the World Cup. In that game South Africa's goalkeeper was kicked out, too, and he would miss tonight's match. The team's spirit was down. The country's spirit was down.

But France was in even worse shape. One of the team's star forwards, Nicolas Anelka, had cursed at the French coach in their last game and he had been promptly sent home. The other players then went on strike. After their refusal to practice the French soccer federation's general manager resigned, telling reporters, "I'm going back to Paris. There's nothing for me to do here." The team captain, Patrice Evra, was the one who had organized the player strike and so he was dropped from the team and would not play tonight against South Africa. The French sports minister summed up the whole drama thus: "It is a moral disaster for French football. I told [the players] they could no longer be heroes for our children."

So tonight's matchup looked like bad team A against worse team B. And even if one of the teams managed to score a goal and actually win it was unlikely to get them through to the second round. For South Africa to make it they had to beat France 4-0. On top of that, their fate was contingent on the other match in their group which was being played at the same time in another stadium between Uruguay and Mexico; for South Africa to advance Uruguay had to beat Mexico 1-0. In short, the night wasn't going to end in anything but two sorry teams going home. And if South Africa was indeed knocked out, it would mark the first time in the 80-year history of the World Cup that a host team didn't move on to the second round. Even sadder. The euphoria of the opening days of the first World Cup to be hosted on the continent of Africa had come to this.

But at least I was seated in the stands between Lerato and Masopha, two former students of mine from when I was a Peace Corps English teacher from 2004 to 2007. We had lived in the village of Tsoeneng, in Lesotho, the tiny mountainous enclave of South Africa. I had bought them tickets because they loved soccer but could never have afforded to go on their own. And this was the first time we had spent time together since I left Lesotho.

We arrived hours before kickoff. I thought Lerato and Masopha would enjoy the extra time to soak in the sights of the stadium. It was quiet now. The empty stands were white. The field was green. Masopha asked about the field. "Is that grass real or is it painted?"

“It's real,” I said.

"How did it get there?"

“There is soil underneath the stadium and they planted it in the soil.”

"Why is it different colors?"

I explained to him that people mow the grass in different directions, which bends the grass blades in opposite ways, making them appear different colors. Masopha continued to stare at the field.

I had figured there would be things I could explain about the stadium to the boys, until Lerato chimed in. "But this grass, is it the natural one? They say it's from America or somewhere. It's imported."

I didn't know. I’d never heard about that. I told Lerato of my ignorance, and I knew better than to pretend otherwise with him. Later, I googled it and found out that all of the World Cup grass indeed was brought in from Canada and the U.S. Lerato had probably heard about the grass on the radio, as he had a battery-operated one at home in the village, and he spent the majority of his free time listening to Lesedi FM, a Sesotho station broadcast from Johannesburg. He was always up on the news, even more than I was when I was his teacher.

Masopha and Lerato were both born in 1983, and they were classmates when I taught them, but Lerato had always been more sophisticated and more knowledgeable about the world beyond the village. People sometimes called him Computer.

But Masopha's nickname was Soups, because the second syllable of his name sounded like the English word "soup," and he was still staring at the grass when the sprinklers began popping up and moistening the field surface, making it sparkle in the afternoon light. I recalled that he had been a shepherd all his life, tending his father's cattle and sheep, and if he knew anything he knew grass. "I want to know how these things come out of the ground and give water," he said. One row of sprinklers went down. "Oh, it's disappearing. We shall see," he continued. Another row emerged. "It's going on again. It's controlled somewhere out there," he said, pointing to the sideline. Soups's curiosity was endearing. If I chose to bring Computer because he was intelligent already, then I chose to bring Soups because he wanted to be.

***

Around us the seats began to fill in, and many of the people sitting down were white. Some were blowing on vuvuzelas, it appeared, for the first time, getting only low fart noises out of the plastic horns. "Chomane calls people only coming to soccer matches during the World Cup "medium class" fans," Computer said. Chomane was, of course, a radio host on Lesedi FM.

Well, tickets for World Cup matches were much more expensive than tickets for a game between teams in the local South African premier league. The cheapest World Cup ticket cost about $20, but a ticket for a premier league match was less than $5. And in South Africa whites still have much more disposable income than blacks.

I hadn't expected the stands to be filling up at all though. The Free State stadium is in Bloemfontein, in the middle of the country, surrounded by farms owned by Afrikaners, the whites who migrated up from the Cape more than a hundred years ago. And if there's one thing traditionally true of Afrikaners it's that they don't do soccer. Black South Africans play soccer, Afrikaners play rugby. In fact, when one of my white South African friends went to a different World Cup game with me the following week he received a text message. His friend asked him where he was. He texted back: “at the soccer.” His friend replied: "Fuck soccer."

Nevertheless, when the teams sang their national anthems the stadium was packed. The French team was in blue and white. South Africa wore yellow jerseys. The stands, white when empty, were now yellow too.

Fans were blowing their horns until the referee blew his whistle. Then the vuvuzelas went quiet. This was strange. And then something stranger happened. The crowd began to sing together. “Thiba ka bona, thiba ka bona. E bolaea ntja sena.” Or the Sesotho words sounded like that: 'Stop these killer dogs.' I didn't ask if I'd heard correctly. I didn't care, really. I was just so surprised and happy that the vuvuzelas had been put down and the crowd was actually singing. I'd been to a number of matches in Johannesburg already and at each of those games there was nothing but incessant, unorganized vuvuzela drone for 90 minutes. I had even bought a ticket for an Argentina game because a British guy who photographs soccer fans for a living told me Argentine fans were the best in the world. But the Argentines were only able to briefly lift a couple of songs through the vuvuzelas. Now in Bloemfontein of all places the crowd was singing as I had always imagined a soccer crowd to sing. We clapped in unison. Then we sang again, and this time it was a song called Shosholoza, and the white guys behind us who had been speaking Afrikaans up until now enthusiastically belted out the lyrics which were in a local black language called Ndebele. As the crowd sang they tomahawked their vuvuzelas. Was I really in Bloemfontein?

Down on the field, South Africa was awarded a corner kick, and at that the crowd put their mouths back on their horns.

Soups blew his blue vuvuzela loudly. He liked blowing the vuvuzela, but he definitely preferred singing. After the corner kick, which failed to produce a goal, Soups tried to start a song himself. “Bafana ba rona, bafana ba rona," -- 'Our boys, our boys.' Soups sang it out, looking around with his hands lifted. But no one followed. Soups tended to be self-conscious; he often checked his reflection in windows. Today, he wore his best blue jeans and a knockoff Germany soccer jersey, number 13. But a shepherd is never shy when it comes to singing. Shepherds spend their whole lives in the pastures honing their voices. Soups turned and spotted some black guys to our left and shouted to them, “Ha re bine!” -- 'Let's sing!' He started the song again and the black guys tried to follow but no one else did.

“Sir, am I allowed to go to those guys and sing?” he asked me. “Sir” was how students in Lesotho addressed their male teachers, and it was a habit that Soups had yet to break with me. I told him he may.

Soups squeezed down toward the aisle and kneeled next to the black guys. He sang to them, “Bafana ba rona, bafana ba rona ...” They sang with him for a few lines, but again no one else followed and a few minutes later he came squeezing back down our row.

It had seemed that all the previous songs showered over us from left to right. And looking at the fans, there were more blacks to our left than to our right. The blacks were starting the songs, I thought. But Computer had a more precise explanation. He took my notebook and wrote, "That is Botha. Celtic’s #1." On the big screens I saw a black man in a cape and a shower cap. This guy Botha was, in other words, the number one fan of the local premier league team, Bloemfontein Celtic. And as the local number one fan, the crowd looked to him to do the cheerleading. I scanned the stadium for the cape and shower cap and sure enough, I found him down behind the goal to our left. The songs were coming from Botha.

In the 19th minute, South Africa got another corner kick and Bongani Khumalo powerfully headed it into the back of France's net. Vuvuzelas lit up. But then the crowd at Free State Stadium put the horns back down and chanted together the name of the scorer, probably on Botha's lead: “Khumalo, Bongani! Khumalo, Bongani!”

The game was getting more exciting by the minute. There was not only singing, but there were also goals. Soups was standing, and he had been on his feet for most of the match. Computer mostly stayed seated though, in his gray slacks and a blue collared shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Lesotho College of Education, from where he had just graduated. Everyone around us began to stomp. I saw that across the stadium people were standing up and sitting down. "This is the Mexican wave. Do you know how to do it?" Computer asked me.

“Yes, and it’s not the Mexican wave,” I said. We stood up, threw our hands in the air, and sat back down. “It's just the wave.”

"Oh. It is said that people first saw it during the 1986 World Cup held in Mexico."

“Well, I’ve been doing it in America at sports games all my life, long before 1986.” For some reason, I felt I had to argue this point. I still knew what I knew.

A foul was called. France had been given a red card. From our vantage point, where the players looked slightly bigger than ants, that was all we knew. Fifa didn't allow the stadium's big screens to give the fans replays for fear it might incite violence. So only later did we learn that the foul had been committed by Gourcuff, who had elbowed the South African player Sibaya in the face. France would now be playing with 10 men to South Africa's 11.

This of course put South Africa at a big advantage, and soon the crippled French defense let a pass go right through their legs to Mphela, and Mphela tapped it into the goal. A second goal for South Africa! Computer had the color commentary for us. "Mphela was the number 1 goal scorer in the premier league last season with 17 goals in 32 games."

So at halftime the score was South Africa 2, France 0. And Computer noted, "There is a high possibility of four goals."

There was indeed. Fifa ranked France 9th in the world and South Africa 83rd, yet how the first half had twisted. As the halftime entertainment danced in the corners of the field -- teenage girls in red skirts, sponsored by McDonalds -- Computer predicted, "I bet one of those other teams wins.” He was referring to Uruguay and Mexico, and just after he did the big screens flashed: Uruguay 1, Mexico 0. The stadium rumbled in cheers and horn blows. This was exactly what South Africa needed. It was all unfolding so perfectly. From such low expectations to these prospects. Computer and I looked at each other and shook our heads.

In my mind, the game had gone from, ‘Oh well, at least Soups and Computer will be able to tell their children they went to a World Cup match in 2010,’ to, ‘Soups and Computer will be able to say they witnessed the great and unexpected South African victory in 2010 which advanced them to the second round of the first World Cup to ever be played on African soil.’

***

The second half started, and Mphela soon shot again, and no one but the goalkeeper was in his way, but the ball hit the crossbar and deflected over the top of the goal. Sighs. Mphela got another chance six minutes later and boosted an even stronger shot, but the French goalie knocked it to safety, wide of the goal's entrance. Ugh.

There were more shots, and the crowd continued to cheer and wait for the third and fourth goals, until in the 70th minute a pass came forward to the feet of a sprinting Frenchman, Frank Ribery. The South African goalkeeper approached and slid to block Ribery but Ribery got his right foot on the ball and tapped it laterally to another Frenchman who was now in front of an empty net. The stadium lost its sound.

France had scored. I was shocked. I didn’t speak. Soups didn’t speak, and neither did Computer. We all watched the French player Thierry Henry fetch the ball from the net and run it back to center field, in a hurry to get the opportunity to score again. He placed the ball into a South African player's stomach. The South African player didn't grab it, but just let the ball fall to the ground.

Until the 90 minutes were up the crowd remained subdued, not sad, but subdued. We were thinking about what could have been. Soups had no more questions, and Computer had no more answers. When the referee blew his final whistles, South Africa had still won, and they had won against France, a past World Cup winner, a European power, a big name, whatever their constitution this particular year. This was a very decent way to go out. But what almost happened. How we felt at halftime!

Computer, Soups and I stood in front of our seats and watched the stands drain around us until they were almost as empty as we'd found them that afternoon. I would tell my kids someday that I had watched a great match beside two of my friends, who used to be my students. It was dark now, but somehow it still seemed more full of hope than when it had been sunny.

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