Blame it on the vuvuzelas. The noise level of these plastic horns in the stadiums—think about attending a game in which every fan is operating a leaf blower— became the first big story of the tournament. The horns have been criticized by players, fans and some officials, leading Danny Jordaan, the boss of the games, to consider banning them, except for matches played by the South African team, which wouldn’t think of depriving its fans of their sound effects.
But like the vuvus themselves, this is a lot of noise. By most measures this World Cup has kicked off decently, even impressively. The showcase Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg’s Soweto township is first rate, a beautiful piece of athletic architecture. The opening match was a thriller between South Africa and Mexico. In the squares where big screens have been set up, fans from participating countries are mixing easily without problems. Even the English are behaving. As for the locals, the welcome couldn’t be more genuine. “Hello, I am Siphiwe,” my cab driver introduces himself to me. I can assure you I do not get this greeting in New York City
Are there problems? Of course: The tickets are sold and the hotels are filled— but the stadiums are not. World Cup Mystery, read the headline of one of the local papers. Where are all the people? At a number of games there were noticeable blocks of unoccupied seats, including 8,000 no shows for the Greece-South Korean game in the 42,486-seat Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth. But you can’t blame South Africa if the prospect of a Greece-South Korea or a Slovenia vs. Algeria match might not send everyone into a frenzy. Much of the problem, though, was the transportation system, which largely employs buses of various sizes, many of which got gridlocked on their way to stadiums. It happened on opening day in Joburg and again at the Soccer City stadium for the Holland vs. Denmark game.
You’d almost have to expect gridlock in Joburg. This is a vast city, on the order of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and a car city, its very distinct neighborhoods not linked by inner city rail or subway. And its reputation for crime prompts many people drive to the games. My own trip to the stadium using the FanRide system from the Melrose Arch neighborhood was a bit roundabout—we meandered through a number of back streets—but nevertheless got there in plenty of time. Others weren’t so lucky, which showed in the stadium in the form of empty orange seats that should have been occupied by Orange-clad Dutch fans. But midway through the first half most of the empty spaces had been filled in—except for the seats in the suites, which remained empty throughout.
Inevitably there will be some uncharitable comparisons between South Africa’s World Cup and the hyper-organized one that Germany staged in 2006. That’s both fair and unfair. If South Africa wants to play host, then it has to be measured by the standards of other World Cups, in places like Germany, Japan and South Korea, and France. So yes, stadium security personnel walked off the job in Cape Town in a pay dispute, forcing the local cops to send in reinforcements. Bus drivers also walked out briefly in Joburg, stranding some fans at Soccer City. And there have been some crimes—unfortunately, some robbers have mistaken foreign journalists for ATMs. But South African authorities have pointed out that the criminals (a couple of Zimbabweans, a Brazilian) include foreigners too.
Despite these early issues, it is unlikely there will ever be a World Cup as unique as this one. The U.S. vs England game took place in Rustenburg, a platinum mining town about 3 hours northwest of Joburg. Geographically, it would be like staging a Superbowl in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, to name a small (former) mining town a couple of hours removed from New York City. In Rustenburg, the pavement quickly disappears once you are outside Royal Bafokeng stadium. In this neighborhood the locals live in sheet-metal shacks—some of them quite new—with chickens patrolling the back yards. Yet Rustenburg is a success story, a place of rising opportunity because of the careful management of the platinum resource by the Bafokeng tribal leadership. As we were heading toward the stadium after parking our car on one of the dirt roads, a man approached to shake our hands. “Thank you for coming,” he said to me and my companions.
He wouldn’t be the first local to utter these words. It’s almost as if the South Africans were afraid that people wouldn’t show up after they’ve gone through all this trouble to stage the World Cup. But they have. Fans are as happy to be here as South Africa is to have them.