9 July ~ After travelling through South Africa for three weeks I have struggled to find anyone who is not interested in the World Cup. The owner of the guesthouse I stayed at in Johannesburg, a former rugby professional, has watched every televised game. I spoke to an old anti-Apartheid campaigner at the fan-park in Cape Town. “I’ve never been much of a sports fan before, but this World Cup is bringing people together,” she said. “My kids think I’m crazy for coming down here to wave flags. But as a white South African I always felt so ashamed of where I was from. But now I can celebrate our flag, together with everyone else.”
After all the worrying about whether South Africans would take to the World Cup, it was ironic to hear a local fret over the choice of hosts for 2014. “The Brazilians are only interested in their own team,” he said. “If they go out early it could become a fairly flat World Cup.” After South Africa were knocked out there was that same concern about the locals losing their enthusiasm for the competition. But they have instead adopted other teams to support. Ghana were the natural choice, but each fan has their own method of selecting a second team. On the way to the Argentina v Germany quarter-final I asked a woman from Cape Town which team she wanted to win. She had just painted her friend’s face in German colours but said she would wait until she knew the half-time score before painting her own.
The South Africans are not the only fans lending their support to other teams. After the unpredictable group standings left a fairly unconventional line-up in the round of 16, many fans were left stranded at games they had not foreseen. Ghana’s defeat of the US was watched by an odd concoction of fans. The Ghanaians were present, supported by every African in the crowd. A few optimistic Americans, including Bill Clinton, offered support to their team. They were joined by over-optimistic Australians, uncommonly pessimistic Germans and, of course, bitter Englishmen. The disposed English fans, who had expected to see their team win Group B, formed some of Ghana’s most passionate support.
No group of fans have been more kind with their support than the Americans. FIFA sold more tickets in the US than in any other country apart from the host nation. And, while many of the Americans have supported the US team faithfully, they do seem to pop up in the oddest of places. I saw one American with a France shirt on, waving a Spain flag while watching Ivory Coast play Brazil. Another US fan told me he had enjoyed attending his team’s win over “South America”.
There also seem to be quite a few “Brazilians” who speak with American accents. At the match between Ivory Coast and Brazil I sat in front of one of those archetypal Brazilian girls who flashes onto the TV screen when the game lulls. She was blonde, draped in at least three Brazil flags and as expressive as a Californian actress. It turns out she was no more Brazilian than Marylyn Monroe. Another girl a few rows in front held up a sign which read “Happy Father’s Day” for the entire match. The man directly behind her (who wore a Brazil shirt and one of those ginger Scottish wigs) wasn’t too impressed. She was sent to the aisle for the second half, where she dutifully stood waiting for her moment on the big screens.
With Brazil, England and Argentina failing to make it to the latter stages of the competition – and Italy and France not making it past their groups – the competition has developed a cosmopolitan feel. Few fans would have expected Paraguay to play Japan in a last-16 match, or Ghana and Uruguay to contest a quarter-final. But the surprises have made for some great moments. And the mix of different nationalities inside the stadiums has fitted perfectly with the idea of bringing people together through the game. Travelling fans might leave disappointed, and many South Africans were never going to afford to see the games from inside the stadiums, but to see people from all over the world sit together and lend support to each other, nothing could beat it. Paul Campbell