I watched the official film of World Cup 2006 on the 15-hour flight from New York to Johannesburg and instantly regretted it. As a fan of French football and admirer of Zinedine Zidane, I don’t know if I expected the outcome to be different or what, but when Pierce Brosnan, whose film career indicates dubious judgment, chided Zidane after his finals headbutt on Marco Materazzi, only to praise the nefarious Italian at the end of the film, I turned the screen off in disgust. Up to now, this had been my experience as a football and World Cup fan, that of distanced television viewing and memories tied directly to the action on the pitch. All this changed when we landed in Johannesburg.
Everywhere you go in Jo’burg, people are playing football, waving flags and blowing vuvuzelas—the long, fluted plastic horns synonymous with South African football. From the smallest kid to the eldest statesman, people here are beaming with excitement and pride and are more than happy to talk about the importance of the first World Cup set in Africa being here. The widely anticipated crime seems well under control, though anyone you talk to will speak honestly about the current state of affairs. There are no attempts to gloss over what’s wrong, only complete honesty and a pragmatic attitude towards progress. Most will say, “Things are getting better every day,” and it appears to be true, especially during the tournament as police and military presence around the country has been quadrupled according to official sources.
In general, it very much feels as though Johannesburg’s motto of “We’re ready” applies to the nation as a whole. Road and highway construction continues just hours from the opening ceremonies, but it seems less like a missed deadline than an opportunity taken to make long-term improvements that will go on long after FIFA has left town. The stadiums are finished, the brand new hotels are full and travel around town is relatively easy. On Monday, Johannesburg’s new Gau speed train and Bus Rapid Transit system opened ahead of schedule, removing a bulk of cars and taxis from the roads and unclogging Jo’burg’s notorious traffic.
Reclogging the roads all over town on Wednesday were parades and celebrations with thousands of people singing and dancing and generally welcoming the world to South Africa. Bafana Bafana (“the boys the boys” in Zulu), the South African national team headed by Brazilian and former World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira drove through the masses in the Sandton district atop a tour bus to the dismay of Parreira. He was caught on live television saying, “This is not football. We should be in training, not here. But I understand the importance.” The players didn’t appear to share his mixed feelings.
Later in the afternoon, we headed over to Orlando Stadium in Soweto to meet with local heroes BLK JKS as they soundchecked for their performance at the opening ceremonies tonight at 8PM local time. They will be joining Alicia Keys for a cover of one of Brenda Fassie’s classics before playing a couple of their own. It is a massively big deal for them to representing their country in front of 40,000 fans and dignitaries and two billion television viewers around the world, but if they’re nervous they don’t show it. They are, like everyone else, excited to meet the challenge, as if this is where they expected to be all along.
While we are with them, opportunities and appointments come constantly. From rehearsal they go to a small school in Soweto to tape an interview with the BBC and then on to a friend’s fashion shop to meet up and talk business. After that it’s back to the stadium for more prep. To see them in the midst of all this just a few years after being on the cover of The FADER is a moment that’s difficult to express. Would they have been here without us? Most likely, yes, but we were a part of it, and that is an incredible feeling. We could put them on the cover ten more times but there will never be another time like this. We are proud of them and they are proud to be speaking for South Africa. Make sure to watch them wherever you are.
After a day and night of BLK JKS, we went out for some grilled meat and wine, as we will probably do every night, and then passed out exhausted from traveling but filled with the excitement of a once in a lifetime adventure.