Africa’s World Cup is About to Get Less African

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The earplug salesmen along the roads to Soccer City in Soweto before the Argentina-South Korea game were doing a brisk business. But the vuvuzelas  finally met their match: a throng of Argentina fans at Soccer City lifted their voices above the noisy horns that have obliterated all other stadium sounds. At the same time, their team was obliterating South Korea 4-1, with Lionel Messi setting up two of  Gonzalo Higuain’s three goals on the day.

As the tournament heads into its second—and frigid— week, class is beginning to tell, defenses are taking their toll, Spain is choking again, South Africa’s dream of advancing has been shattered and the host continent ‘s other teams weren’t doing much better. Argentina, Germany and Brazil, with convincing wins, have served notice that the old order isn’t going away anytime soon—except of course for France.  The former world and European champions were buried once and for all by a scintillating Mexican team, adding more luster to the Latin American presence.

How to explain the failure of the African teams so far? Well, it was a stretch to expect South Africa to advance, since it wasn’t strong to begin with. A draw with Mexico in the opener gave hope that Bafana Bafana’s fans would carry them past Uruguay. But a Diego Forlan looper and penalty kick took care of that.  Much more was expected of Côte d’Ivoire, which drew with Portugal, and Cameroon, which lost to Japan 1-0. Only Ghana could provide an actual victory, against Serbia.

Some commentators here have argued that the African players are losing their “Africanness ” because most of them now work in Europe, and even have European coaches for their national teams.  The result is play that lacks creativity and spirit, having been replaced by European “systems.” In truth, that seems no more than an excuse:  Greece didn’t beat Nigeria because the Super Eagles lacked style; the Greeks won because Nigeria’s Sani Keita picked up a red card for a crazy foul.

Spain’s 1-0 loss to Switzerland, courtesy of an almost accidental goal, pointed up the mountainous defenses being erected in this tournament. Players are massing in their own end to deny scoring opportunities. Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said his team had to defend with nine men, but he underestimated by one.  Spain would have had an easier time getting through the Swiss Alps in winter. “Their football didn’t deserve such a big reward,” said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. But defense does have its rewards, says U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu, who demonstrated as much in the American’s draw with England. “Teams are getting better,” says Onyewu. “There’s not as much dominance; it’s becoming more competitive, and  harder to win.”

The U.S. is about to get a taste of that difficulty against Slovenia, one of the surprise packages of the Cup. The Slovenians were stingy on defense in qualifying and are not likely leak goals.

Despite the almost certain elimination of South Africa, the tournament is still a cause for celebration here. Wednesday was Youth Day, a national holiday that marks the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976, when students essentially started the campaign against apartheid that would result in a new nation. “It was a decisive point, a turning point,” said Danny Jordaan, the World Cup chairman and a former revolutionary, “the point of never surrender: we were going to see a free and democratic South Africa, the South Africa that is hosting the World Cup.”

Jordaan suggested that the next national movement would be in something more prosaic: getting mass transportation to take hold in Johannesburg. After huge traffic jams in the first couple of games, South Africans have tentatively stepped onto the new train and bus systems expressly built for this event. “We wanted to bring a transport revolution,” said Jordaan.  But he acknowledged that even with all the goodwill engendered by the World Cup, some habits are hard to break. “South Africans,” he said, “believe transport is one person in one car.”