The Cup So Far

Durban Travel Blog

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Being in South Africa for the World Cup is one of the coolest things I’ve experienced.  I don’t know how to explain the excitement of the World Cup to someone who may not be interested in soccer, but I’ll try.

     First of all, there are fanatical people from all over the world here to support their teams.  People dress up in all kinds of costumes – I’ve seen Japanese supporters dressed as ninjas or sumo wrestlers, Dutch supporters dressed like they are going out to milk the cow by the windmill with their fake wooden shoes on, Spanish bullfighters, etc.  People wear wigs, face paint, carry flags, chant, sing, and generally have a good time.  And some people are dressed normally too.  Everyone is good natured, drinking and eating side by side with their rivals, holding no grudges in defeat and rubbing no faces in victory.  Now I don’t know if things are this civil everywhere, but they certainly are in Durban.  Perhaps the stationing of police personnel every 10 meters has something to do with it, but I think that people are just really happy to be here and to be part of what is a historic and meaningful event beyond the pure sport of it.  This is the first World Cup to be held on African soil, and that is proving extremely meaningful in and of itself, but I’ll get in to that side of things later.

   So when you have all these people here, happy and cutting loose, many of them drunk, some interesting things are going to happen.  I’ve had some great conversations with random people from all over the world.  Some German guys taught me some words that I was told never to say ever again because evidently they are pretty offensive.  I’ve been asked a lot about the US, such as if we don’t give a damn about soccer then why are so many of us here?  -and non-sport related questions like, how bad is the drug problem in the US really?  -and do I think Obama will win reelection, etc.  I’ve met a handful of people who are also from the states – one group from North Carolina and two sisters from New York who happened to live extremely close to the only neighborhood in New York City that I’m familiar with. (There are no US games in Durban - hence not many US fans.)  We talked about current events in Brooklyn and which place had the best pizza.  People are coming and going, flying from city to city to follow their teams, or at least to follow their tickets, as the Cup is going on at 10 different stadiums in 10 different cities across South Africa.  The girls from NY were in Durban for the Nigeria v South Korea game on Tuesday night and then had to fly out to Pretoria for the US v Algeria game the next day.  You get whatever tickets you can and then figure out the logistics later.  MJ and I only had tickets to Nigeria v South Korea, so we are able to stay put, but man do I wish I had tickets to more games.

     The stadium in Durban is brand new.  All of the stadiums are.  It was a huge undertaking for South Africa to build up their infrastructure to the levels required by FIFA in time for the Cup.  They had to go in to overdrive; work outside their typical bureaucratic channels and go above and beyond to get everything done and done well, and they were successful in doing so.  There are a lot of editorials in the papers wondering why it is that SA can get in to gear for the Cup, but they have had trouble getting in to gear for other projects like improving water and sewage lines in new area and fixing roads?  The editorials aren’t scathing, but they are pleading politicians and leaders to take note of how successful South Africans can be when properly motivated, and to carry that in mind when going ahead with other endeavors.  There is a definite feeling of pride concerning the cup, and everyone in the country is going out of their way to make sure things are great for everyone, South Africans and tourists alike, and it is working.

     In addition to being brand new, the stadium in Durban is also spectacular.  You can see it from almost anywhere in the city.  We drove up the coast about 15 minutes today to a really nice beach area, and along the pier you could look back towards the city and see the stadium prominently on the edge of the cityscape.  It isn’t directly on the water, but it is damn close.  The stadium was designed so that side facing the ocean is higher up than the side facing away, so the people in the upper deck facing the ocean can look straight out over the seat on the other side and see the coast.  There is also an extremely large opening on one side of the stadium, positioned perfectly so that you look out of it and see the city line behind the stadium.  The layout is very well thought out and well executed.  50,000+ people at the game and I didn’t have to wait more than 3 minutes in line to get a beer or to use the bathroom.  Everything is well marked so finding your seat is terribly easy.  The sound system is great, it is easy to hear all the announcements. And finally, there are two large JumboTrons on either end of the stadium, so you can see replays of goals and penalties up close from no matter where you are located.

  As for the soccer itself, it’s fantastic.  For those that know next to nothing about the games on a professional level, I’d like to try to explain how a game that ends up with a score of zero to zero can be terribly excited.  If you already know, feel free to skip this part.

     Soccer is pretty different than football, baseball and basketball in that the clock never stops.  The game is played in two 45 minute halves, and once the half starts, the clock runs constantly until the half is over.  If there is a penalty, the ref takes the ball and puts it where it needs to be and play resumes.  If there is an injury, a player kicks the ball out of bounds and the trainers run out and take the player off the field until they figure out if he can keep playing or not.  Play resumes as soon as the injured party is removed.  At the end of each half, a certain length of time is added on to be played, based on how many minutes were wasted during the half dealing with injury.  This added time typically ranges from 1 to 4 extra minutes, but can be higher.  If someone is injured during the added time, the ref can keep play going a few minutes longer.  This system is great because you know that when the game starts, the first half will be over in 45-50 minutes, then you’ll have a short half time break, then you have another 45-50 minutes and you can plan accordingly.  The action is constant, and momentum can really build. 

     As you can imagine based on the general lowness of the scores, scoring a goal is pretty difficult.  A team can be dominating the other team in terms of minutes they had possession of the ball, but still have no score to show for it.  The action tends to flow like water; a team will wash down the field with the ball, mount an attack on the goal, get turned back when the defense clears the ball, and then regroup and make there way down the field again for another try.  For a successful attack, many things need to go right.  Every time your team runs down the field, you are hoping that these many things occur.  The passes have to be crisp and on target; the offense has to individually beat their defenders to get in to favorable positions; the ball has to be crossed over in to the middle just right, and whoever ends up with the cross has to take the shot quickly and accurately before the defenders pounce on him, and he has to hope that the goal keeper guesses the direction of his kick incorrectly.  If all of these things occur, the team will score.  It’s a relentless pursuit of perfection – it’s hard to attain, but when it is attained it’s an absolutely beautiful thing.  It can also be beautiful if only 90% of the attack works out.  A player can run down on a fast break after intercepting the opponents pass, the team can work the ball around to each other rapidly and with purpose until they find a gap in the defense, a pass can appear to be hit too hard or far forward for a player, but the player can turn on the afterburners and run down the ball just before it passes over the end line, and then cross it beautifully to a group of teammates who are waiting in the center for their chance to knock it past the goal keeper, and one of them gets their head on the ball, and knocks it up past the reach of the goal keeper, only to have the ball hit the cross bar of the goal and bounce back and out of the way to safety.  No goal was scored, but a beautifully planned attack was executed, and it was incredible to watch.  That type of thing can and often does happen numerous times in a game, so that despite the lack of goals, it can be an unforgettable, nerve-racking match.

     I’ve watched almost every single game so far in its entirety.  Some of the games that didn’t seem like they’d be very exciting turned out to be awesome.  I wouldn’t have thought that Italy v New Zealand would be an important game to watch - Italy is the reigning champion from the 2006 world cup, and New Zealand is a team that made it in to the tournament mostly because Australia changed conferences to be a part of the Asian confederation.  But, somehow, New Zealand was able to stun everyone and pull a draw with Italy.  Now it’s possible that Italy not even make it out of the first round of the tournament!  From the champions to being eliminated in the first round!  Unlikely, but because of that game, it is a distinct possibility.  Other upsets have occurred – France was the runner-up in the 2006 World Cup; this time around they did so poorly that members of the organization resigned and the French president is personally leading an inquiry in to what went wrong in their Hindenburg-like performance.  England finished second behind the US in their group, and for a short while there it seemed like Germany was going to be eliminated in the first round.  Smaller teams have done surprisingly well.  North Korea, ranked 105th in the world held strong against Brazil, the heavy favorites to win the Cup, and only lost 2-1.  One African side has made it through so far, maybe one more will make it on as well.  There is a lot of African pride here.  Most South Africans are rooting for the African teams now that their own team has been eliminated.  South Africans are not too upset about their team being out – they managed to beat higher ranked France and send them packing in their final game, and they know the positive effects of hosting the cup are only going to work in their favor the next time around.

     Where I am staying, I can walk to the stadium in about half an hour.  Half an hour doesn’t sound terrific, but the parking area for the stadium is almost as long a walk, so it actually works out perfectly.  When a game is being played in the Durban stadium, you can hear the crowd cheering from quite a distance away.  South African fans blow these plastic horns called Vuvuzelas, and it was a big controversy as to whether or not vuvuzelas would be allowed at the games.  I don’t think that a vuvuzela ban would have been realistic, and neither did FIFA because they decided that as long as they didn’t get thrown on the field and as long as fans didn’t take to hitting each other over the heads with them, vuvuzelas would be allowed at the games.  You can buy a vuvuzela anywhere – grocery stores, gas stations, random dude standing in the median at a stoplight – and they cost about $4 if you buy one outside of the tourist hotspots.  If you are an idiot, you could spend up to $20 on one at the airport - it might be nicer looking, but it would be the same piece of made-in-China plastic as the $4 one.  I rigged mine with a rope so I can sling it over my shoulder and carry it around hands-free like a quiver.  It takes a slight level of ability to play and it sounds like a one note trumpet.  I saw a newspaper headline that said that some people had ruptured their throats from blowing on their vuvuzelas too hard, but I don’t believe it.  I did have a sort throat after the game from making so much noise, but I did not at any point come close to rupturing my throat.  I also read that some baseball park in the states gave out vuvuzelas to the first 15,000 fans that attended the game, and then immediately regretted doing so.  I think it’s fun anytime you have an obnoxious noisemaker and free reign to use said noisemaker, but not everyone else thinks so.  The French team in particular hates the vuvuzelas – they complained that they couldn’t score any goals because they couldn’t hear each other, and the captain of the squad couldn’t get any sleep because people were blowing vuvuzelas outside his window at the hotel.  Maybe that was South Africa’s secret weapon for that game.

    Next to the stadium is one of several official Fan Parks.  These parks are basically beer gardens set up with large screens and a few rows of bleacher-type seating where you can watch the game with hundreds of your fellow fans.  Vuvuzelas are allowed, so the fan parks can get a bit loud and boisterous.  During halftime they run some ridiculous contests and the winners get a soccer ball or similar prize.  The winners are also often drunk, which makes the contests interesting.  I’ve watched a few of the day games at the fan park and I love it.  MJ likes it a tad less than I do, probably because she doesn’t appreciate the draft beer and the huge boerwors you can buy there.  Boerwors are basically a South African sausage, served on a roll with grilled onions.  The ones at the fan park are over a foot long and together with a 20oz draft cost about $6, which at a Rockies game gets you just a 16oz Coors.  The draft beers are especially cool because they have a special cup and high-speed draft system that fills the cup up from the bottom in a swirling motion, so that no head forms on the beer.  Part of me wants to take one of the cups back to the US and get a patent quickly so I can market this magical product to bars across Colorado and make a couple million.  Maybe I will, who knows.

     Before I end this, I have to talk about the US game, mostly because it was incredible.  Going into tonight’s game, The US team had managed a lucky draw with England and an unlucky draw with Slovenia.  The draw with England was lucky because the goal we scored was more the result of their goal keeper screwing up than of us taking a good shot, and the draw with Slovenia was unlucky because we came behind from a 0-2 deficit to tie the game, and then scored a 3rd goal which was not allowed by the referee for some mysterious unknown reason.  That goal should have won us the game, but because of poor officiating it didn’t count.  Upon looking at the replay of the call, there is no reasonable explanation for the penalty.  In fact, there should have been a penalty call on Slovenia, because you can clearly see in the replay that at least 2 of their players are holding on to US players so that they can’t get in to position to score.  It’s a load of crap, and I think that the ref of that game was dismissed from the Cup for his poor performance.  Nevertheless, the US was in a position with their third game where they had to win the game to progress to the next round.  Our opponent in the third game was Algeria.  Algeria was in a position where they had to win the game to possibly have a chance to progress, depending on the outcome of the England v Slovenia, which was being played at the same exact time.  A draw would definitely put Algeria out, and would probably put us out as well, so it was fairly do-or-die for both teams.

    Lightning struck twice, and the US scored a goal that was taken back because the ref said we had a player in an offside position.  During halftime when the South African commentators watched the replay, they all felt that it was a bad call and we should have been awarded the goal.  The game was otherwise scoreless, and that bad call could have had us on a plane headed back to the US to wait another 4 years for a chance to play in the finals.  For almost the entirety of the second half, it appeared that we would be doing just that.  We had multiple chances to score, chances that were so good that it was absurd not to score, but we just couldn’t get the ball to the back of the net.  If England did not win their game, then we may have progressed to the next round anyway, but England was leading, and it didn’t appear likely that Slovenia was going to tie it up.  The second half ended, and the ref had added 3 minutes of extra time due to injuries.  In the second of those three minutes, Landon Donovan ran in and scored off of another player’s attempt – the goal keeper wasn’t able to keep his hands on the ball and dropped it just and Donovan came rushing in.  After the game, Donovan said that he saw the goalkeeper drop the ball and time stood still; he saw that he just couldn’t miss, and he didn’t.  It was as close to being over as it could have been, and we pulled out the victory, putting us top of the group and in to the second round.  As top of the group, we get to play Ghana, a difficult but winnable game for us, and England gets stuck with a match against Germany, a team that is consistently hard to beat.  England could defeat them, but they have their work cut out for them.

     I know that when I get back to the US it will be hard to watch any soccer.  Most games aren’t televised, and even if they were, they would be on at terribly inconvenient times of the day.  I hope to get to some of the Colorado Rapids games – the stadium is only about an hour and a half from Breck and the tickets aren’t all that expensive.  The level of play won’t be the same, but it will still be some decent soccer.  There are some definite obstacles for the game becoming more popular in the US (for example, how can you show commercials during the games if they don’t ever have time-outs?) but I sincerely hope that people get more interested in the US team and that we can continue to develop serious talent and get more players in to the top leagues.  It’s cool to make it out of the first round, but I’d love to see us go further and become serious contenders.  The World Cup is one of the few events where I can be proud of and feel like I can represent my country in a non-Toby Keith style patriotism-like way.  It isn’t political, it isn’t economic, you can’t just buy yourselves or power yourselves into a championship; you have to accomplish it - and at the Cup I can support a team that can hang in proximity with the South Koreans, or the Mexicans, and dream of the days when we may be hanging with the Brazilians or the Argentineans, and have a beer with the South Africans and the Slovakians while doing so.  It’s a great time.   

missandrea81 says:
I really enjoy reading about your experience there. I myself am German, but my husband is from the US. We don't often meet people that share our Fussball enthusiasm. :) I do also hope that the US will get more experience in the game and will make it further next time. Maybe that will wake up the rest of America to this great sport.
Posted on: Jul 07, 2010
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Durban
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