Friday, June 11, 2010

The ultimate Football Friday

It was an early morning start to what has been dubbed "one of the most important days in South African history", the opening match between South Africa and Mexico, as the vuvuzelas rang out at 5am, the sound that a despondent music lover has described as "the gray drone of the B flat". It may have been the constant monotonous droning, but even the family cat was infected by the soccer spirit. He kicked the carpet with his back legs and played vigorously, looking for new toys and attention.

I decided to go to work early as the highway would probably be choked with 80 000 fans making their way to Soccer City and I was worried I would not be able to make it. Is there anything worse than having to go to work when everyone else is having a huge fabulous party?. Taxi commuters vigorously blew their vuvus out of the windows and pedestrians waved little flags, but otherwise things seemed surprisingly quiet. The freeway was clear, with its four new lanes, and no roadworks in sight, and I sailed into work. Unlike the past 18 months, when every morning produced a new set of challenges and everywhere there was an obstacle and a driving nightmare.

At work things were frenetic. A colleague had brought along her naughty-eyed 12 year old son and his young friend dressed in a British fan outfit. The two ran around blowing their vuvuzelas at top volume all around the harassed journos, and I could see colleagues visibly gritting their teeth. Finally, like a good Afrikaans mother, she put her foot down. "Stephen! That's the last time you blow that thing!" she yelled at him. The vuvus ceased and soon she left, taking both boys with her.

Newspapers have to come out, come rain or shine and most of us were tied to our desks for the day while others had taken leave or were leaving at 1pm. Someone had set up a projector behind me with a big picture onto the wall. Normally it was reserved for news conferences but today it was all ours as our editor was at the match, with his whole family (only editors got consideration, everyone else got kicked to the kerb!). Everyone wore their yellow soccer shirts, which they had been sporting on "Football Fridays" for some months now.

I had two pages to put out but was afraid that things would get so noisy right behind me there would be no way in Hades. But then we got the news about Nelson Mandela's great-grand-daughter being killed on her way back from the World Cup opening concert and that he would not be attending today's match. She had only turned 13 on Wednesday, a few days ago. Devastating for the family, especially her mother Zindi. Her great grandmother Winnie had not been in the car, a friend told me. A close friend of the family, she had woken up that morning to about 30 SMSs and missed calls about the tragedy. It was a blow on both a personal and public scale and a waste of a young life.

Not a good start to the World Cup. Especially when South Africa was on such a high. We need to win this match so desperately I thought, not just for sporting reasons.

A journalist approached me about Victoria Beckham whom she had been tipped off was arriving that morning. It would be a perfect time for Posh to slip into the country, especially when every single press member would be either at Soccer City or reporting on the soccer. It would be like Frodo Baggins going to Mount Doom when the Eye of Sauron was turned away from his own kingdom. I phoned a journo friend at another publication but he was watching the game with his mum and hadn't heard anything. The Queen of the Wags was free to slip into the country during the opening ceremony without any stray paparazzi recording her every move.

702 began to report on the hideous traffic jam which had ensnarled Sandton. Johannesburg has earned itself the unenviable reputation of having some of the worst traffic jams in the southern hemisphere and this was the mother of all traffic jams. The motorists had knocked off from work at 12 (even the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was closed for the day) and were trying to get their cars to the Park and Ride stations so they could take buses to the stadium. Even the Bafana Bafana team was trapped in the traffic and missed the opening ceremony! The Fan Parks at Innisfree and Tshwane, which were to take the overflow, had to close their doors after the first 20 000 fans.

Despite many empty seats the "Calabash" stadium looked quite astonishing from the air as five jets roared overhead. What a beautiful stadium. I was filled with pride over my home town. Soweto was where it was all happening, quite rightly as the soccer culture of South Africa was born here. How wonderful to think that these images were being beamed all around the world.

Finally I finished my pages and could take my seat next to my colleagues and watch the match itself. How the whole place went crazy when South Africa scored its first and only goal against Mexico, the vuvus started all over again! It was an amazing attempt by the 80 something-th ranked team against the 17th top team in the world. The sangomas might not have been right when they anticipated a 2-0 win for South Africa but we held our heads high, defended our goalposts furiously and made the country proud.

Tonight Cape Town will be in the spotlight as the second game, Uruguay against France, kicks off. The Mother City looks gorgeous with the city lights on and the fans are streaming into the Green Point Stadium.

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