TEN DAYS IN JOHANNESBURG: SPECTACLE v REALITY
Foreign children run amok in the tiny square that sits out front of my hotel, ringed with upscale restaurants and shops, and within the security gates that make the Truman Show-ed blocks of the artificially perverse Melrose Arch in Johannesburg safe for such shenanigans. Outside the gates, the story is different, right?
Indeed sidewalks outside the malls, gated city blocks and security patrolled neighborhoods are as empty as the barrel of a gun before the trigger is pulled—the void created between extreme wealth and abject poverty as tangible as a duel at high noon in the old American West. But the fear only exists if you expect that the trouble is pointed at you. Every time for me a smile suffices in breaking the seal between tourist and resident. I mean, should I really not walk around? But I don’t dare test it, not when it seems all we hear Stateside about this country, this continent, is trouble and crime (hotel staff also strongly discourage any sort of walking outside of Melrose Arch or a few other hotel/retail/casino centers around town). So what you’re left with, without real effort, is a relatively inauthentic South African experience. All around me was a feeling that this is not real.
Driving the streets and construction-strewn highways, JoBurg becomes my hometown of Atlanta, GA, albeit with a few more electric fences atop towering walls that turn mansions into self-inflicted prisons. Ten days in the giant city, and it felt like just like other giants, but I’m still lost with how even to describe the place. No matter what some writers and editors would like you think, 10 days is not enough time to absorb the story of South Africa, or even soccer in South Africa. A little more than a month of soccer games during the World Cup will also not suffice. A library of books and films also may not be enough. Talking about South Africa and its World Cup situation can be dangerous. After a week in JoBurg, that story appears more dangerous than the city itself.
JoBurg is played by tourists and guides as a wilderness with preordained safe outposts. Take precautions or hire a knowledgeable guide, and South Africa is your oyster. Don’t—say, get drunk and take the wrong corner in artsy Melville, which brims with nightlife—and risk losing your pearls, perhaps your life. But is that any different than Atlanta, New York, or even a small town in Iowa?
It is any other big city—surely dangerous areas and agents exist. The only question left for me when deciding whether the World Cup will go off safely, is whether petty theft or significant terrorism will be the headlines. The former is fine, the latter you only hope is pointless panic misguided by fear mongering. At which point someone inevitably says, “Yeah, but this is Africa.”
In just a couple of months this megalopolis mix in which first world meets third will host the entire world, even if more than was originally hoped by the country and FIFA decide to stay home and watch on TV. It’s fall here, and the final rains leading into the dry Johannesburg winter clap with daily thunder. The humid shade of the world’s largest urban forest leaves conscious travelers with little to fear and much to love. Especially where soccer is concerned.
I went hunting big game in Africa, searching for Hristo Stoichkov, who until just days before my arrival was the coach of Mamelodi Sundowns of the South Africa Premier League. His resignation, fining by the PSL, and subsequent rumors from Bulgaria that he was in talks with the Mexican federation to assist his friend Javier Aguirre with Mexico’s preparations for the World Cup, not surprisingly, left my inquires at Sundowns on deaf ears.
Who better to speak to in South Africa about the USMNT than Stoichkov? Besides being a star at Barcelona, member of the Bulgarian national team that finished fourth at the 1994 FIFA World Cup and that year’s European Footballer of the Year, Stoichkov “the dagger” played for Bob Bradley on the Chicago Fire from 2000-2002. Surely he has some insight about his former manager. As is often the case at this country’s famous game reserves, the biggest attractions are often hiding out of sight. So I have to look elsewhere.
R19,000 (about $2500) went to the winner of the Easter holiday youth tournament in Soweto.
Except for one blip last summer, the USMNT is almost completely off the map of South African consciousness. I found no proof that the team will find support among local fanbases, who all appear to be siding with the tournament’s favored teams and favorite stars. “They surprised us at the Confederations Cup,” my native South African driver Sean told me. But he doesn’t know who Landon Donovan is or anyone else on the team and doesn’t care. The Americans are an afterthought after those teams stockpiled with European stars who reign supreme over the dreams of African adults and children alike. Sean supports Manchester Untied and hopes that despite the injury, David Beckham will at least be here in June as the nation’s guest. “We don’t care about the World Cup,” Sean said. “About how good our boys do. But we want to see people come here and be happy and help our country.”
That sentiment rang out wherever I went, with whoever I talked to.
On the way to an Easter holiday youth tournament in Soweto with filmmaker, artist, and Soweto resident Dumisani Phakathi, he too talked about his hope for the coming winter, but did so without the smile that greeted me throughout the city when my questions came. He is not worried about crime. But he is worried about the World Cup.
“It is like a wedding,” Phakathi says. “You organize the wedding between you and your partner. The event is amazing, the photographs get taken. Everybody remembers the day. But the trick is about what happens after. What do you carry with you from that day of the wedding into your life with your partner? Because if you don’t, that was just for show, the wedding just a spectacle. We can’t afford for this World Cup to be a spectacle.”
For a first time foreigner in South Africa, everything seems a spectacle. But the nation begs for more.
THE WORLD CUP AS WEDDING
South Africa’s American Soccer Connection