First Published in
2010. I cannot think of anything besides the FIFA World Cup when I hear that particular combination of digits. Twenty, ten... It’s like a virus has taken root in my mind somewhere, its sole function to attach the concept of “Soccer World Cup” to the words “twenty” and “ten” and I fear the condition may be permanent. Never again shall I be able to separate the numbers from the hype. The brainwashing I’ve been scoffing at for the past several years has actually worked, despite my best efforts at haughty dismissal. Pretty good going for a year that hasn’t even happened! The pertinent question however is probably whether 2010 and its World Cup is going to be a year we’re going to want to remember. Let’s postulate.
Firstly, as with most things, your experience and the resultant memory will depend greatly on who you are. Schabir Shaik, for instance, may remember prison as a brief but necessary pit stop on the way to a luxurious retirement. Whereas Nelson Mandela may recall prison as a period of roughly half his life spent in abject misery on an isolated island at the hands of his enemies barking commands in the language of the oppressor and strutting about in bad khaki outfits. It all depends on who you are and what your unique vantage point is. Consider the unique vantage point of the luggage porters for instance, who will form one of the first points of contact with South African culture for most visitors from abroad. Picture it…
“Okay, look proud guys, look proud…” the head porter whispers from the side of his mouth. He battles to get the words out clearly because he’s trying to speak without moving his lips at all. He is standing in a neat row of similarly clad and smiling guys in the arrivals hall at OR Tambo International Airport, creating the perfect uninterrupted smile with which to charm the world at large out of disposable local currency. To what extent will this intrepid pioneer fulfil his mandate? I would venture to guess that the relative weakness of the Rand and the overt sense of goodwill and euphoria of an event of this magnitude will pre-dispose most oversees travellers toward generous tipping. Keep smiling brother, your 2010 possibilities are looking good.
And the people arriving? Will our beautiful country fare well in accommodating their refined tastes and high standards or will they take something less flattering away from the experience? Imagine an “Albeiter Schultz”, possibly chief correspondent for Norddeutscher Rundfunk, a North German sports channel, stepping out through the automatic sliding doors of the baggage claim hall. As the doors slide open with a quiet hiss he’d take a last brave gulp of cool “international” air and hold it in his lungs. Then he would strut into a strange new world, his sandals squeaking on the new plastic floor. Maybe he’d hold the air in until his chest felt like bursting. He would realise he’s being silly and exhale, grinning at his paranoia. He may even shake his head a little, remembering that he’s a pro after all, a seasoned journalist. He’s done it all. Wimbledon, the US Open, the Olympics... ‘course he can handle a little African World Cup! Just then a giant smiling Zulu man in an orange overall would swoop down from nowhere lunging at his luggage. The apparent prison breaker will put a giant hand on his suitcase and then Mr Schultz will kind of shit his pants.
A short distance away, a rotund police officer may be slouching against a SAPS helpdesk. He’d be toying lazily with a button on his walky-talky or swinging his baton around dreamily while watching the drama unfolding. He would most likely consider intervening, but decide against it in the end. Mr Schultz would continue to freak out.
Schultz would try to resist the pull of the crazed criminal’s grip on his prized Austrian leather bag, but the muscles in his hand would eventually simply let go. Is this going to be a good experience for Albeiter Schultz? How will he remember 2010? I imagine that he will say that he is proud of his visit to – and subsequent survival of – our golden shores. He will also treasure an impressive collection of anecdotes, like a tourist that survived a tsunami – 15 years of priceless after-dinner fodder. This is one German who will proudly say: “I was there.”
Our dear police officer over by the counter, on the other hand, will have been pulling some pretty long shifts in the run-up to the tournament. He would also have had to attend after-hours lectures in “Visitor Hospitality”, “Basic Italian” and “Asian Cultural Orientation”. The past six months will not have been the most cheerful in his life. He may well feel like he’s done just about as much as can be expected of him. Unless something blows up right now, he’s pretty much done. Perhaps the officer will already be looking forward to forgetting the whole World Cup thing completely. But, I’m being cynical – over the next 20 years or so the memory may very well sweeten. Maybe he will be able to say to his grandchildren that he was there. That he stood watch bravely and welcomed the world, that it was a lot more dangerous than anyone ever imagined, and that he went above and beyond.
And finally, our speculative gaze must turn inevitably upwards, to the first-class lounge above the mad scramble of the arrivals hall. There, through the cool tinted glass inside we may spot a muscular young man staring absently down at us. Below him will be the crowds of red-faced arrivals, the officials, luggage and chaos. The player may push an elegant hand through his perfect Portuguese fringe to deflect it from his perfect Portuguese forehead.
He will see nothing. Instead he’ll be wondering about the condition of the first pitch and the quality of local ass, about whether his hotel room will be up to standard and whether the team is really as prepared as they should be. He is a star of the beautiful game and, as such, a lord of the universe. All of his greatest achievements are recorded in dozens of formats and have been broadcast over innumerable networks across the entire planet. Only one question dominates all others for guys like this. Did we win? And for all bar one single team the answer will be no, we lost. So it may be safe to assume that 99.9% of the world’s finest footballers will associate South Africa with utter failure and bitter disappointment.
As for myself, I too will be able to say I was “there” – or “here”, depending on which continent you’re reading this. In fact, one way or the other, we South Africans are all a part of it and each of us will have a unique experience. My son keeps telling me that “the world is coming to Cape Town”, with a look of wild excitement in his big blue eyes. I do believe he thinks of it in quite literal terms, that “The World” is actually coming to Cape Town. I could either be a cynical chop or I can choose to see it through his eyes. I think I may go for the second option. It may just be a lot more fun.