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Notes from South Africa: The Forbidden Vuvuzela

The Confederations Cup is under way in South Africa. Despite a disappointing result by the home team, a scoreless draw with Iraq, the interest level here is steadily rising. It’s helped that three of the games have been great spectacles in themselves: Spain’s 5-0 demolition of New Zealand, a 4-3 thriller between Brazil and Egypt, and a tense affair between Italy and the U.S., where the World Champions had to come back from a goal down against a U.S. team playing with ten men.

I was in a mall when the festivities began on Sunday, with dancers taking the field for the opening ceremony at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. I walked by an electronics store to find a throng of people lined up outside the entrance watching the show. After a speech by newly elected president Jacob Zuma, the tournament was ready to go.

Back at my hotel I watched the match with a group of hotel employees who had taken a lengthy break to see their team. When it finished scoreless, the sentiments were mixed. The pundits on South Africa’s television station Supersport laid into the much-maligned Joel Santana for coming out too defensively, a sentiment shared by many. The guys I was with bemoaned their team’s bad luck on the day, which included Kagisho Dikgacoi’s goal-bound header being unfortunately cleared off Iraq’s goaline by a teammate. Another person I asked said the blame lay squarely with the team. “We lost it ourselves,” he groaned. “We had the chances but not the goals.”

By the time you read this, South Africa may already be out of the Confederations Cup. It’d be a shame, since it would be great for the tournament to have the local team around. With Bafana’s struggles however, Egypt has jumped to the forefront as the local favorite.

The performance Egypt put in against Brazil showed why the African champions are so well-regarded here. Though they went down 4-3 in the end, the rallying cry was based on how well Hassan Shehata‘s team acquitted themselves against the South Americans. Indeed, the local response to the second day of action here revolved almost entirely around the moral victory for all of Africa brought about by Egypt’s play. The global press will fawn over Brazil at any given opportunity, but the focus in South Africa was all about the performance of “brave, resilient, outstanding Egypt,” as one article in Pretoria News put it the next day.

I caught the Egypt/Brazil match in my hotel, where the onlookers outnumbered the ones for Bafana’s game the previous day. Afterward I headed to Loftus Versfeld to watch Italy take on the United States.

Loftus is first and foremost a rugby stadium and just over two weeks ago it hosted the 2009 Super 14 final between Pretoria’s Bulls and the Chiefs of Hamilton, New Zealand. Built in 1906, the stadium has undergone some renovations recently, with some notable work being done to the roof. The underbelly of the stadium is cavernous, with high ceilings in the brick-walled locker rooms and paths going every which way.

The ends of the stadium are great, with a low, small grandstand giving way to an upper tier that features either luxury seating or offices (I couldn’t determine for sure, but these were all conspicuously empty during the game). It looks a bit like Highbury’s Clock End or the BayArena.

The red brick is all over the stadium, and there are uneven cobbled paths leading around a walkway that climbs to the upper levels. While the paths are wide, the entrance to the pitch is narrow and as it got closer and closer to game time, the walkways began to get congested as fans started streaming into the ground. You access your seats by walking along the pitch, a la the San Siro, and as kickoff approached, the paths quickly clogged up.

Some of the stadiums have not been particularly full so far in the tournament, but the crowd of around 30,000 at Loftus Versfeld was lively and up for the match. Despite the sign, fans were not—to put it mildly—deterred from bringing their vuvuzelas. Depending on your view, these nasal horns are either endearing as part of the local soccer culture or incredibly and incessantly annoying. The noise of the horns carries over onto the television, where it’s rendered as a more or less perpetual buzz.

Indeed, people who are watching the games from TV have written me to ask about the noise: “What the hell is the continuous droning sound?” wrote one of my friends who was aggravated by the fact that the vuvuzelas blare at a constant volume, whether somebody has scored, it’s halftime, or absolutely nothing is going on.

The vuvuzela outcry is mainly coming from those, like my friend, who are watching the tournament abroad. In the stadium, the fans love them. It’s one of those things you bemoan until you actually are able to try it: think laser pointer. On TV the horns conflict with the commentary, among other things, but in the ground the ambient noise is part of the atmosphere. It is undoubtedly less abrasive in person than it is via satellite.

Somebody blew one about three feet from my face as I was rushing around the stadium during the pre-game, and I cursed the thing as my ears rang. Later, though, I enjoyed watching a few guys near my section take turns surprising other members of their group with vuvuzela blasts from incredibly close range. When in Rome, I guess.

Just as the tournament was beginning I read of the contingency plan for police to take over security for the event. It’s hard to make a judgment on something like this without an actual security problem in the stadium taking place, but my experience at Loftus was fine. As usual, there are kinks to work out—somebody tells you to go the wrong way, doesn’t let you into a place you think you’re supposed to be, or you turn the corner into a fence—but you always get these type of brief hold-ups as the volunteers and security detail work through their first night at an event. I suppose that is not the most ringing endorsement, either, but hopefully nothing worse develops over the course of the next week.

This is a huge few days for sport in South Africa.  The Springboks are set to begin their test match with the British & Irish Lions on Saturday. In fact, the Lions played last night in Port Elizabeth, a stadium that was going to be used for the Confederations Cup before delayed construction caused its removal from the venue list. Additionally, the South African cricket team has advanced to the Twenty20 World Cup semifinal in England .

First up, however, Bafana Bafana are fighting for their Confed Cup lives against New Zealand. I won’t be at the stadium, but we’ll see if a vuvuzela or two makes an appearance in the hotel…

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Notes from South Africa: The Forbidden Vuvuzela

by Anders Wollek · June 17, 2009

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