Monday, June 22, 2009
Africa responding to noise of the vuvuzela
With the group stages now over and less than a week of the Confederations Cup left, South Africa's dry run for the World Cup is proving something of a mixed bag.
On the one hand, plenty of logistical concerns will be causing the organisers, Fifa, and fans some sleepless nights. But on the other, spectators have been seduced by some of the football on offer - with the competition producing some stunning goals and performances.
Local South Africans are happiest about their team's place in the semi-finals, where they join Spain, the United States and Brazil, but they've also been greatly entertained by both the latter and Egypt. While the Brazilians cruised through Group B, registering maximum points while scoring ten times, the Pharaohs unexpectedly crashed out on Sunday - leaving fans with memories of their thrilling 4-3 defeat to Brazil and the 1-0 humbling of world champions Italy.
"People stop me in the street and tell me how well my team has played," beamed Basser, 32. "A South African stopped me the other night and told me he would like to be an Egyptian and that he was proud Egypt was African - it was very good!"
So was the Egyptian support, which even included fans who had flown in from Dubai: ultimately though, the impressive defeat of Italy was undone by Sunday's 3-0 loss to the United States, who reached the semis on goals scored. "All of the critics in America who said we were no good after losing to Italy and Brazil, let's see what they say now," rallied coach Bob Bradley after his side's miraculous feat.
The U.S. kick off the first semi-final against European champions Spain in Bloemfontein on Wednesday, followed a day later by the mouth-watering Bafana Bafana-Brazil clash in Johannesburg. And the Brazilians have been loving their time in South Africa.
"This is exactly the World Cup in Africa we were longing for and expecting," said Brazil star Kaka. "It's great to see the passion the people here have for the game and how they celebrate and enjoy us being here. I am sure the World Cup next year will be even better."
Yet the Brazilians will not be hoping for a repeat of the theft at their hotel. They say a jacket and money went missing on Friday night, just 24 hours after five Egyptian players lost $2,400 from their hotel rooms in Johannesburg. While the South African crime rate has prompted many World Cup fears, few thought it would affect the players themselves.
Both parties have sought to gloss over the incidents, with the Egyptians saying such a crime could happen anywhere in the world. "We are only saying something because, as Africans, we want South Africa to be in the best shape for the World Cup," said Egyptian football president, Samir Zaher.
Yet the thefts are the latest in a long line of off-field disappointments, boosting those who believe Fifa should never have brought the World Cup to Africa. A view hardened by the fact that when the thefts were occurring, four British tourists in town to follow the Lions rugby team were being robbed and beaten up.
In truth, the list of teething troubles is long and varied.
Some problems are easy to fix, with organisers unlikely to repeat the error of staging rugby matches on pitches that will be hosting football just days later. Yet the park-and-ride schemes, particularly in central Johannesburg, require more work.
The system has been chaotic, with fans having had to scrap for places on buses after the police's poor crowd control. Improvements are being made, albeit slowly, but the system needs plenty more trials to achieve success - for visiting fans won't tolerate the chaos with the same good humour as the locals.
In addition, there has also been a steward strike in dispute over pay while perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the failure to fill the stadiums. The simple reality is that many South Africans can't afford the tickets, meaning some of the country's longest-standing football followers are being priced out.
At least there is one row which is as amusing at it is harmless - the kerfuffle over the vuvuzela, the long plastic trumpet which makes an incredible din when thousands are blown simultaneously. The sound equivalent to a swarm of angry bees has invited the wrath of European broadcasters, with one Dutch journalist asking Sepp Blatter whether Fifa could ban the instruments because they made it hard to work.
"It's a local sound and I don't know how it is possible to stop it," the Fifa boss replied. "This is Africa - it's noisy, it's energy, rhythm, music, dance, drums. We have to adapt.''
While the vuvuzelas may irritate some visitors, with Spain's Xabi Alonso saying it is hard for players to communicate, others love the atmosphere created inside the stadium - and for those who toot the 'terrifying' trumpet, it's no laughing matter.
"This vuvuzela encouraged my players to do well," said one fan after South Africa beat New Zealand. "I believe this because this is my culture, and we play the vuvuzela so that the players can play well. They respond in a big way because once they hear the vuvuzela sound, they play extremely well."
Before the tournament began, the knives had been out for Bafana Bafana's Brazilian coach Joel Santana - with many fans doubting his abilities. A disappointing draw against Iraq preceded the 2-0 win over New Zealand, which boosted confidence despite the lowly opposition. Nonetheless, South Africa squeezed into the semis when losing 2-0 to Spain, but they would have gone out had the Iraqis defeated the Kiwis.
"Spain are not ranked number one in the world for nothing and it showed we still have a lot to learn," said star midfielder Steven Pienaar. "But it was a great experience for us and this is a good challenge as we prepare for the World Cup."
So, of course, is the whole event, which has already gone far in helping next year's finals. While the stadiums may not be full, the ticket sales are equivalent to many preceding Confederations Cups - and those who have braved the transport chaos have been rewarded.
"We've enjoying the Confederations Cup very much," says Andries Shole, 35, "but I can't wait for the World Cup either."