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Notes from South Africa: The Egypt Backlash

The first round is done in South Africa and the tournament is building excitement as the semifinals are set to begin. Bafana Bafana managed second place in their group, behind front-runners Spain, while Brazil topped Group B with the U.S. slipping into the semifinals in unbelievable circumstances.
Some thoughts from the past few days:

— Bafana’s victory against the All-Whites was watched by a record television audience of more than six million South Africans. The relatively easy victory gave Bafana the life in the tournament they needed, and they ended up advancing to the semifinals thanks to a draw between New Zealand and Iraq a few days later. TV pundits Clive Barker, a former coach of South Africa (not the director of Hellraiser), and Doctor Khumalo, the team’s former playmaker from the 1990s, were unconvinced by Bafana’s win, though both did blow celebratory vuvuzela calls on live TV. In fact, the lack of full-blooded support by the pundits is starting to worry a few people; outside the TV studios, at least, the fans here are starting to display a bit more belief in their team. In a way, the pressure on Bafana is off—they’ve achieved their goal of reaching the knockout round. Many think Santana could spring a surprise or two on Brazil, his native country, though that remains to be seen…

— Group B was much less straightforward, and I traveled to Rustenberg to take in the match between USA and Egypt. The stadium in Rustenberg is in the middle of nowhere and, as you drive up to the ground, you can see the floodlights from a good distance away. The ground itself is pretty bland and I found it lacking the character of a place like Loftus Versfeld, which I suppose is understandable considering the Royal Bafokeng stadium was only built a decade ago. The stadium is in great condition, easy to navigate, and ultimately not a bad experience, if a bit dull.

— During the game, some kind of official walked around on the track pointing at and identifying numerous banners in the crowd. The banners, all in Arabic and all from the Egypt fans, were removed soon after. I never got word on what any of these signs actually said, but this was a pretty early development, so the stadium crew must have been ready.

— Where previously Egypt was the darling of this tournament, and the second-favorite team of all the locals, the spectacular fallout from their loss against the USA has been something to behold.

A few days ago, a robbery in the Egypt hotel was reported, with a few players falling victim to the theft of around $2,400. The incident was troubling in South Africa. It came at a time when interest in the Pharaohs was at its highest; they had just grabbed a deserved 1-0 victory against faltering Italy, becoming the first African team to beat the Azzurri. Additionally, the robbery resurrected many of the security questions that until that point had been eclipsed by the football in the tournament. Suddenly security became a massive issue again.

Immediately following the disaster against the U.S., the story began to change. Newspapers now began to report that the Egypt players were robbed by prostitutes in a raucous post-game celebration from the game against Italy. Egypt was pilloried on the live post-game show, with callers expressing their disgust with they way the Pharaohs handled themselves, and making jokes about all matters soccer- and non-soccer-related.

The fans who I talked to were incredibly put off. “You cheer for them because you have to—they are an African team,” said one person to me. “But it’s so disappointing.”

Egypt have their side to the story. The head of their delegation blamed the media for the Pharaohs’ ousting from the tournament, citing the “shameful and disgraceful” coverage of the “theft”, and legal action could be on the way.

— Some people I talked to who worked with Egypt during the team’s stay here all pointed to how difficult it was to work with the Pharaohs. One of them offered up this story: “Whenever they would train, nobody on the team would carry any bags. Somebody would come up to us and tell us to carry their bags but that isn’t our job, they have a kit man who is supposed to organize this. If we carry their bags then they would accuse us of stealing their things.” Anecdotal, perhaps, but it seems as if Egypt is not doing themselves any good in the minds of the South African people…

— I’ve moved to Bloemfontein, site of the semifinal between Spain and the United States. The game will be played at Free State Stadium which, like Loftus, is primarily a rugby stadium. The atmosphere for the game should be tremendous and the fans in Bloem are well-known as some of the best and most passionate soccer fans in the country. Additionally, the Bloem fans are also known for their singing culture, so there could be some noise in the stadium tomorrow night in addition to the vuvuzela. I’m anxiously awaiting what promises to be an intriguing game…

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Notes from South Africa: The Egypt Backlash

by Anders Wollek · June 24, 2009

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