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June 14, 2010

Struggling to locate African experience

By John Brewin

"KeNako - Celebrate Africa's Humanity" - a FIFA motto that litters the stadia of South Africa's World Cup. A worthy concept, yet not one that was reflected on my first foray into the world of the paying fan.

African culture has been largely drowned out in the World Cup experience
GettyImagesAfrican culture has been largely drowned out in the World Cup experience

Netherlands 2-0 Denmark
• Moonda: Ban the vuvuzela

In partnering with various multi-nationals to provide food, drink and no doubt a hefty wedge of endorsement cash, FIFA can be held responsible for the fact that the stadiums do not reflect African culture in any fashion other than the infamous pariah that is the vuvuzela. As the governing body has repeatedly decreed, these hateful horns are here to stay and are available in whatever colour you choose, depending on your nationality of choice. Forget singing, clapping and exhorting: blow your blasted horn whatever the circumstances. The experience was mine for the princely sum of $80, an amount clearly outside the reach of the majority of the local South African population.

Add in the fact the local economy's hopes of making a bonanza from the footballing festival have been denied by the exclusion zones placed against all but endorsed products and you have a tournament that could well be being played anywhere on this earth. And perhaps in future could find a home on the Moon, too.

At times during Netherlands' somewhat torpid defeat of the Danes, it was easy to forget that one was actually in Africa, such was the cultural similarity of this sporting experience to any I have enjoyed in Europe or America. In the stands, hotdogs were devoured, crisps/chips were munched and a certain American brand of beer was quaffed. Has the World Cup been replaced by the type of World Eating Championships one can catch in Stateside stadia?

That beer is largely banned in view of the pitch in the European game meant that its free availability came as a welcome novelty, even if it was untapped by yours truly. However, its unrestricted availability leads to constant traffic up and down the walkways of Soccer City.

Perhaps my seating in what seemed a largely neutral section has given me a skewed sense of a fans' World Cup experience, though I think not, having scanned the stadium for signs of the type of passion we have come to expect from both Dutch and Danish fans.

Judging by the many late arrivals, the constant clicking of cameras and the heavy consumption of items from the concession stands, many were treating this as a tourist experience to be ticked off. In a list of a seeming must-haves, just behind the requisite purchase of a vuvuzela comes the acquisition of earplugs. Indeed, the American gentleman sat to my left clearly saw little irony in parping atonally while having his lugholes stuffed full of foam.

Such detachment may well have made its way on to the pitch. For much of this match, the Dutch and the Danes played as if this were a Monday lunchtime game - which of course it was, in a working city that is the heartbeat of Africa's economy.

The vuvuzelas have provided one distinctive reminder of the tournament's location
GettyImagesThe vuvuzelas have provided one distinctive reminder of the tournament's location

Both displayed the caginess that many other teams have shown in opening their accounts and, as with Slovenia-Algeria and Serbia-Ghana, it took a mistake to prise it open as a contest. Yet when Dutch reward for shading the first half arrived at the beginning of the second via the unfortunate head of Simon Poulsen, many an Oranje fan found himself the victim of long refreshment queues and missed the goal completely. African culture at least had its say in that respect.

Indeed, I myself missed Poulsen's nightmare moment, having taken cover at half-time from a stadium PA that rivals the South African airforce in terms of noise pollution. Whichever way one turns, aching eardrums are an occupational hazard at this World Cup. The second half, which had ebbed away to such an extent that my horn-playing/earplugged pal had his eyes closed for long periods, did draw to something of a crescendo with the introduction of Eljero Elia.

The Hamburg winger, the provider of Dirk Kuyt's clinching goal, is the type of previously unsung talent that can light up a tournament, a footballer to discuss and draw one back into a World Cup that is yet to take off on the pitch. Sadly, back at Soccer City, his intervention gave the tourists among our number the excuse to vacate their seats and head for the exits. The box-ticking had clearly been completed.

As the game drew to a close and I made a meek attempt to clap off the players, forgetting the futility of such an old-school approach in the eye of the horn, I caught sight of a pair of Danish fans. One was comforting his friend, a young man clearly crestfallen at the failure of his team. My sympathy went out but his sorrow had lifted my own spirits. He had restored my faith. At least someone had shown that they actually cared and that football fervour can still live and breathe among the passionless ennui of the FIFA experience. More of that, please.