Only a hardened cynic whose eyes have seen too much would fail to have been touched by the effervescent spectacle and welling emotion of the World Cup opening ceremony inside Soccer City. I witnessed history with my partner-in-blog Michael Davies at a Mexican bar in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Despite this fact, Davies largely ignored the television, preferring to partake of the action as it unfolded one tweet at a time on his mobile phone. And yet a tear still formed in the corner of his eye. But no sooner had the game kicked off than he returned to his steely self, overwhelmed by his horticultural obsession and firm belief this World Cup will be determined by the springy state of the turf. Indeed, it took all of 10 seconds for him to bellow:
"The pitch is playing fast, man!"
His comment silenced the bar, which hitherto had felt like a slice of Toluca. Packed to the gills, it was a testament to the first lesson of the day: The Nielsens will not come close to capturing the actual number of people watching this World Cup as they fail to factor in the immense numbers drinking in the action at bars. We had originally journeyed to Fort Greene with the hope of experiencing the emotion of the opening game at the city's pre-eminent South African boite, Madiba, but there was simply no getting in. There may have been 84,000 lacing Soccer City, but it felt as if there were twice that attempting to stuff themselves through the front door at Madiba. The bar was gridlocked, rammed full of human flesh desperate to be part of the World Cup action.
We quickly decamped, ditching South Africa for Mexico, courtesy of a chirpy Mexican eatery called Smoosh (eponymous to its Australian owner) that was just half a block away. Once the game kicked off, Mexico made light of vuvuzelas so tenacious they even dared smother the dulcet tones of Martin Tyler with their nasal blasts. But the Mexicans, whose quick-passing fluidity was forged amidst the delirium chaos of the Azteca, shrugged off the spectacle. Simply put, the beginning of the game was Men against Bafana.
The South Africans had the opposite reaction. Borderline shell shock. Not since Uruguay took the field in 1950 against the Brazilians in the legendary Maracana had a side appeared so overawed by the moment. So terrified were the Uruguayans then that one was moved to urinate in his shorts during the pregame anthems. A number of the South Africans began the game as if history had just repeated itself. Mexico could have put the game away if it were not fielding Jimmy from "The Wire" up front. Guillermo Franco missed chances that Bunk would surely have slammed away.
Once South Africa came to its senses and the game settled in, the odd interaction between ball and turf became a distraction. While Davies is right -- the grass does, on the first day's evidence, play fast -- the Jabulani may just be the Roger Clemens of soccer balls, all juiced up with a mind of its own. Cross after cross floated inches over the head of their intended targets as wingers were left to shrug like golfers who had used one club too many and overhit the green. (Note to Fabio Capello: Crouchy. Yes. The foal-legged big man will have a field day leaping to pluck the ball down from the sky. Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips: No. This ball is unplayable for smurfs.)
But then the Jabulani did something unexpected. For one special moment it behaved like a normal football, sitting up perfectly for Siphiwe Tshabalala (that would be Sih-pee-way Tah-sha-bah-la-la) to thunder a scorching blast into the top corner, permitting the South Africans to amble to the sideline and give the baying crowd what it had come to see: a Village People-esque dance routine that must have taken weeks to finesse on the training ground. The World Cup may have been only 55 minutes old, but it had already offered up a definitive image.
If the opening game was a lively affair with some surprisingly artful moments, Uruguay against France was more of a psychological tussle. The French continue to rival the Housewives of New Jersey for functionality. They entered the game with rumors of a teamwide mutiny against doe-eyed midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, the housewives' favorite. Havoc-wreaking wide man Florent Malouda was on the bench after a bust-up with the bushy-eyebrowed coach, Crazy Ray Domenech. The game suffered for his absence. France played as if its only intention was to prove it takes a special talent to have an exorbitantly skillful squad play so languidly.
The Uruguayans played solidly in both attack and defense but lacked coordination in-between. Diego Forlan ran tirelessly, arrowing his runs into slithers of space to stretch the French defense. His partner, Luis Suarez, was less effective. At times it seemed his big idea was to try to exhaust the linesman's flag-waving arm by being caught offside so often.
The game ended sloppily. The French played as if they were eager to a man to hit the beach. Uruguayan Nicolas Lodeiro mounted a spirited effort to crack fellow countryman Sergio Batista's record for the fastest World Cup red card of all time. Batista can breathe easy. His 1986 record (56 seconds) still stands. We were also able to delight in a lovely 88th-minute moment of karma: The sight of Thierry Henry appealing for a handball penalty being laughed off by the referee. If it were not for the vuvuzelas, we might have heard wafting laughter from all parts of Ireland.
And so on to tomorrow. And the big game. In which my Super Eagles of Nigeria will boldly explore the inner workings of Diego Maradona's mind. And then the nightcap, in case you are interested, in which we will discover what carries more motivational power: the United States' desperate fight for self-respect (coupled with the additional carrot of a $20 million victory bonus) or England's crippling fear of failure.
ENGLAND SHOULD DRAW STRENGTH FROM:
Fabio Capello. This is your moment to do the job you were hired for. To bring your brand of ruthless organization to the England team. The last time you were at the World Cup it was as a player in 1974. You had one shot. And scored one goal -- 100 percent efficiency.
U.S. SHOULD DRAW STRENGTH FROM:
Jay DeMerit. One-time bouncer turned international defender harboring big musical dreams once recorded a single aptly titled "Soccer Rocks." Its lyrics could act as a motivational anthem for a team looking to turn up big. Nail these beauties to the locker room wall. Their time is now:
Misty Morning and the football's calling to me from across the sea (Soccer Rocks!)
We've got to ride and I'm not alone (Soccer Rocks!)
It's only me when I'm in the zone (Soccer Rocks!)
I hear my teammates calling me and opponents fearing a slide tackle when I have the ball (Soccer Rocks!)
Let me bring your dream to you
Show you all what you could do (Soccer Rocks!)