Football Madness Continues: Early July 2010

This posting should go up soon after the World Cup semi finals, but before the final. It has been an amazing month both for me personally and for the country. My personal score card is four games in two stadia. The first was the England against the USA in Rustenburg on the 12th June. On the 23rd July I went to the Moses Madiba stadium in Durban for the Nigeria versus Korea game. Three days later I returned to see Portugal play Brazil, and on Monday 28th I saw Netherlands versus Slovakia. On Saturday 3rd July I joined friends at the Fan Park next to the Suncoast Casino to see the Germany Argentina game. In addition to this I have watched numerous games on the television in my flat or with friends.

It is hard to describe the events of the past month without getting emotional. The general consensus in South Africa was that we could (probably) deliver the World Cup and we have done so and exceeded out own wildest expectations. So far everything has gone smoothly, more smoothly than we believed possible. In part this is due to the way the event was built up by the Government and our media. There were extensive advertisements on the television telling us: the World Cup was coming, we should be gearing up to it, getting excited and preparing to welcome the many tourists flying to South Africa, for this once in lifetime event.

As time went on the message changed to say: ‘Ayoba: It is here’. After South Africa were defeated there was another switch in emphasis to say: “Well we didn’t get very far but let’s keep welcoming visitors and ensuring that they have a good time”.

I think we have succeeded. One concern was around crime, and it has been amazing how little there has been. The press reported on the first tourist to be shot (and wounded), an American walking in a very sketchy part of Johannesburg. I think we all have been taken aback, and people have just been lucky. I had two people from Sweden staying in the flat. One day they set off to walk into town, which I think is safe! They had just reached the Warwick Junction area when they were accosted by a lady driving through who said: “You can’t walk here. It is really dangerous. Get in the car at once”.

Sadly she then took them to the Suncoast Casino, which would not be my first choice of an environment for visitors. She also proposed that one of them, both being blonde Swedes, might be a perfect match for her son. Mind you I wonder about the some people and their naivety. A colleague had a ticket for the semi-final that he cant use. He gave it to a friend to sell. This person got a buyer, a Nigerian who took the ticket to ‘authenticate it’, and also took the bank details so he could deposit the money. I wonder how that story will turn out!

There has been flag waving patriotism. It has been enthusiastic and inclusive, when teams were knocked out their flags have continued to be flown on the cars and drivers have added second and third team national flags. At one point I estimated that one in five cars was flying a flag for someone. It has been a profitable time for the hawkers who operate at traffic lights. Instead of pineapples and coat hangers they have been selling flags and, something I have not seen before, mirror socks. These are little material socks which fit over the side mirror on vehicles. It has also been fascinating to how the nation has come together. All the crowds have been very multi-racial. At the Suncoast park the audience was largely Indian but there was a good smattering of visitors, mostly German fans and a number of black spectators.

I found the comment of a bright young white South Africa very telling. He said “Well we don’t expect to do well because we are not a soccer nation”. How typical that he should not understand that, for the majority of South Africans, we are a soccer nation. I really do think this will change.

What about the football? Of the games I have seen perhaps the most exciting was the Netherlands – Slovakian match. The stadium was packed with Dutch fans, who stood out in their bright orange jumpers and football shirts. They cheered their hearts out; the team played its heart out; and beat Slovakia. Then on Friday 2nd July they managed to knock the favorites, Brazil, out of the competition which was fantastic and now they are thought to the final. That match I watched at the gym, carefully taking my distance glasses so that I could be on the cross-trainer and actually see what was going on. I got there for the second half and the co-owner of the gym came to join me on the next machine. As a result we were able to get rid of the normal terrible music and listen to the commentary. That was a plus side, but I guess the minus side was that the gym was completely deserted. I think there were four people in the cardio section and another five in the rest of the building.

There will be huge economic benefits to South Africa. In the long-term we have invested in infrastructure which will serve us well for decades to come. In the short-term there is tourist money pouring into the country, and one has to recognize that there are some advantages in having the wealthy nations staying in the competition. It has been patchy though, I have been on aircraft that were virtually empty and others that have been jam-packed. I think that we overestimated the level of spending there would be. The other evening I went to one of the best restaurants in Durban, Fusion : there were only four people, and we outnumbered the staff. At the same time there have been sudden influxes of people, the airport at Port Elizabeth had more large aircraft on the hard standing than at any time in its history.

Things have not always worked perfectly, but when they went awry most people have been good humored. For example the Fan Park where I watched the Germany Argentina game, with all my German friends, had the live feed collapse just five minutes before the end of the match. At that point Germany were three nil ahead so we were pretty certain of the result. I was impressed by the good humor of the crowd both as they got up and left a little early, and as we navigated our way out of the ghastly Sun Coast Casino parking area, with its cones and tortuous routing to the exit.

Of course, this past month has not just been World Cup. On the 1st and 2nd of July we had our annual HEARD Retreat at a hotel called the Caledon near Ballito. This is a boutique hotel, one of the Life Group. I have written about them previously in my blog. I’m not impressed. It is situated inland and I am somewhat perplexed by its location. It will have to trade on something other than its non-proximity to the beach. It is in an area which seems to rapidly be developing into retirement villages and golf estates. It is, however, close to the new airport. The retreat was well facilitated and was helpful and useful to get an idea of where we will be going in the organization.