Ahead of next year’s World Cup the Confederations Cup is an opportunity for South Africa to prove they can host a major tournament, while for Spain there is a chance to become record breakers. Jonathan Wilson reports

“Er, Aidan,” I asked. “What’s that yellow light?” “What yellow light?” he asked. “The one in the middle of the dashboard in the shape of a petrol-pump that looks like it might be telling us we’re running out of fuel.” “That? I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s all under control.” And usually the accusation levelled at News of the World journalists is that they don’t require their information to be double-sourced before believing it. It was about 20 minutes later that the engine coughed a couple of times and gave out.

We – that is me, Aidan Magee, Duncan White of the Sunday Telegraph and Chris Hatherall of Hayters – coasted about half a mile down a hill, and came to a halt slap in the middle of an exit slip road. That gave us an immediacy of purpose, but having pushed the car on to the hard shoulder, the reality of our situation set in. After everything we’d heard about security in South Africa, after all the warnings about not stopping at red lights after dark, and never wandering the streets alone even in the daylight, here we were, stranded just a couple of miles outside Soweto at four in the morning, with a pale mist swirling eerily around. At least we didn’t know at that stage that one person had been killed and two seriously injured in a truck crash at that junction two years earlier. And to think that only four hours earlier, as we left Bloemfontein on the way back to Johannesburg, Duncan had been reflecting on how the job of a football journalist could sometimes be a joyous one.

After all the worries, all the doubts, all the griping about the lack of accommodation and the irritation of the vuvuzelas, there was a spirit about South Africa’s game against Spain that almost in itself vindicated the decision to award the country the right to host the World Cup. Admittedly, I might not be saying that next summer as deadlines whoosh by and the internet refuses to function, or when a particularly attritional mixed zone is followed by a traffic-clogged overnight drive because there aren’t enough hotels, but in the relative calm of the Confederations Cup it has been easy to warm to South Africa’s efforts.

It has been easy too – naive, perhaps – to see a deeper significance to the World Cup, to believe football can function as the cliche demands it does and help knit a divided society together. And this is, still, a deeply divided society. Even wandering around sanitised Sandton, by reputation the safest district of Johannesburg, it is striking that you never see anybody white walking. On my second night there, after a couple of us had walked 15 minutes from the apartment where I was staying along a well-lit and busy road to pick up a takeaway, a local insisted on giving us a lift back on the grounds it was too dangerous to be out of a car after dark.

As an outsider, it’s hard to know how justified the sense of fear is, but it’s certainly oppressive, and it can’t be healthy. In such an environment, it’s natural to become cynical about the dream of the Rainbow Nation, and yet equally it seems impossible not to be moved by the sound of a full stadium (of various races, although predominantly black) belting out the South African national anthem in each of its five languages (in its FIFA-approved emended version that lasts only the stipulated 90 seconds). Equally, the bellows of “Boooooth” every time Matthew Booth, the enormous centre-back and the only white player in South Africa’s starting line-up, speak of an encouraging colour-blindness among fans of the national side.

There are always questions about whether the Confederations Cup matters. It doesn’t, of course, in any of the usual ways. Almost nobody remembers who wins it, and the only truly memorable event it has thrown up in its 17-year history has been one of the most horrible football has known: the on-field death in 2003 of Marc-Vivien Foé. This time, though, there was a clear purpose – to prove that South Africa can host a major international tournament.

On that count they have succeeded – although it must be acknowledged that the Confederations Cup is a far smaller event than the World Cup, with a quarter the teams, a quarter the fans, and far fewer than a quarter of the travelling fans and journalists. But what the Confederations Cup has also done is to confirm the great appetite there is in South Africa for football, a desire partly to see their own team do well, and partly just to see great players. The authorities gave away huge quantities of free tickets for some of the less glamorous fixtures, which may be a worry for next summer, but the Free State Stadium was packed. The crowd was partisan, naturally, but talking to fans before the game, and witnessing their reaction during it, revealed a clear thrill just to be able to see the likes of Fernando Torres and Xavi in the flesh.

That said, in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced an atmosphere quite like it. I’ve known noisier atmospheres and more intense atmospheres, but I can’t ever recall such a palpable mood of excitement. The vuvuzelas, the buzzing horns that had become such an irritation that even Xabi Alonso was moved to speak out against them, combined to produce not the whining cacophony of earlier games, but a great hum of anticipation. Behind the goal away to the right as you look from the press-box, a mass of Bloemfontein Celtics fans sang, swayed and brandished their vuvuzelas as one. And, best of all, South Africa responded. With Steven Pienaar restricted by injury to a late cameo, they had been stodgy in drawing 0‑0 against Iraq, but had kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the semi-final with a proficient if not exactly exhilarating 2-0 win over New Zealand. Here, though, for 45 minutes at least, they were excellent. Fatigue caught up with them after half-time, but they showed enough intelligence and spirit in the first half to suggest that the dire warnings of them being the weakest ever World Cup hosts might have been slightly overplayed.

“Bloemfontein is the best supported team in South Africa and that’s why it was so noisy,” said Pienaar. “You have the best players coming to the country and the people are getting excited because you don’t see them often. It’ll be an advantage for us to play here next summer.” Already drawn as the seed in Group A, South Africa know they will play their third group game in the Free State Stadium; no opponent should be confident of getting a result in that game.

The Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune made two decent saves in the opening 35 minutes, the second, spreading himself at the feet of Torres to block the Liverpool forward’s attempted dink, being particularly impressive. It was in the ten minutes that followed, though, that South Africa came into their own. Bernard Parker, the 23-year-old Red Star Belgrade striker, snatched at a great opportunity after being laid through by Pienaar, then Theko Modise, a promising 26-year-old who has been linked with a number of Premier League clubs, miscued after an imaginative lay-back from Pienaar, and South Africa began to believe. Half-time was raucous, particularly as the news came through from Johannesburg that New Zealand were holding Iraq. And then, six minutes after the break, came the loudest roar of the tournament. Cesc Fàbregas was tripped by Aaron Mokoena on the left side of the box, but Khune, hurling himself to his left, parried David Villa’s penalty, and recovered in time to grab Carles Puyol’s follow-up.

Within a minute, though, Villa had scored, taking Albert Riera’s cross on his chest and hitting a brilliant volley on the turn just inside Khune’s left-hand post. The substitute Paco Llorente hooked in a second 20 minutes later, and the game was done. All that remained was to hang nervously on the news from Ellis Park. Iraq had an effort cleared off the line in injury time, but couldn’t, in the end, find the goal that would have led to a drawing of lots for second-place in the group. Which in many ways was the perfect conclusion. Spain deservedly won – and in so doing set a new world record of 15 straight victories – but South Africa could take pride in their performance and claimed a semi-final place.   

Through the mist, we saw about a mile in the distance the green and red lights of the last toll plaza before Johannesburg. It was decided that Aidan and I should walk up there to seek help, while Duncan and Chris stayed with the car. We explained our predicament to a woman in one of the cashier’s booths, and she sleepily shouted what sounded like “November”. A small man wearing a luminous yellow vest emerged and, after listening to our story, motioned us over to his car. Sure enough, he explained, he was called November after the month of his birth. We got in his car, a battered blue jalopy with a huge crack down the middle of the windscreen, and watched as he turned the key in the ignition. The engine wheezed, and failed to catch. November called over a colleague who opened up the bonnet while he fiddled around with some wires under the steering wheel, and then suddenly it caught.

The garage was only five minutes away, and within half an hour we were back at the car, saved by the kindness of strangers. The episode may have ended in anti-climax, but that is a positive. Visitors to South Africa next summer are likely to encounter great friendliness and helpfulness. There will be frustrations and glitches, but equally there are likely to be unforgettable moments that escape the corporate cocoon that was so stifling in Austria and Switzerland last year. Perhaps it’s time to stop worrying, and simply embrace the first African World Cup.

From WSC 270 August 2009

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