Africa’s first World Cup is coming to a glorious climax. We have seen so much to wonder at, we have seen so many problems surmounted, so many great goals, so much scintillating football, so many poor refereeing decisions, so many dreams shattered.
The World Cup that was supposed to collapse in chaos has risen above the carping doomsayers. As I have said from the start, it could turn out to be the best yet. Every night for a month, the eyes of the world have been upon the Rainbow Nation. And I have yet to meet an unhappy traveling fan—Algerian, American, English, Italian, Slovenian, Brazilian. Believe me, I have spoken to footballing pilgrims from around the world.
Okay, the pitch at Port Elizabeth wasn’t perfect. Some of the park-and-ride facilities have required a stiff hike after the whistle. Polokwane and Nelspruit, just two of the wonderful new stadiums on offer, may never see the like again.
And Sepp Blatter is still a dictator with one eye firmly on the profit margins.
But now I think we must address the truly miraculous elements of South Africa 2010. The unexpected realities must be examined before 22 gladiators meet for their life-or-death struggle at Soccer City on Sunday. As the Romans might have said: Incredibili (that’s unbelievable in Latin).
Not known for their love of footballers (or anyone else for that matter), the lost White Tribe of Africa take the No. 1 spot purely for their stoicism. Having had their rugby ground in Pretoria stolen by the World Cup (their beloved Blue Bulls had to play the Super 15 final in Soweto just before the big kickoff) our bearded friends (men and women) have somehow taken this whole African festival of footie on the chin.
Having just read a particularly nasty little fascist newspaper called “The Afrikaner,” which offers only the prospect of post-Apartheid apocalypse, I swear this is true: When Paraguay bored the pants off Japan at Loftus Versfeld last week, a family of Afrikaners were attempting to master the Vuvuzela in front of me. The mum just couldn’t get it right. She sounded like a chronic case of flatulence. So the black couple next to them offered to help, as well as the black kids further along. By the end of the game they were taking pictures of each other in warm embrace. The mum told me afterward: “That was such fun. I’ve never really been to a social event with blecks.”
And that was just one incident among dozens. Onbewaarbaar (that’s unbelievable in Afrikaans).
After a month of being told how the new Adidas ball is far too light and impossible to control, we finally get to Cape Town and the Holland-Uruguay semifinal.
By this time, only two Japanese free kicks in the space of five minutes against Denmark had really shown any great potential. Then Gio van Bronkhorst, the Dutch captain who is nearly as old as Jan van Riebeeck, hits one from about 30 yards. If the net hadn’t been there to stop it, the super light Jabulani may have ended up happily on Robben Island. An absolute scorcher.
Later we had Diego Forlan hitting one that bent all over the place. Gavin Cowley, the Adidas spokesman behind the Jabulani, must have smiled. Nothing wrong with this ball. Just took a bit of getting used to. And consider the profit it has made around the globe after all those headlines. Unglaublich (that’s unbelievable in German).
I’ve mentioned before the incredible scenes when the US defeated Algeria with a last-minute Landon Donovan goal to top Group C. The Yanks couldn’t believe their luck.
Mad celebration culminated in the striker from Hull City's Jozy Altidore going over the fence to clasp the Stars and Stripes. This happened right in front of the massed ranks of Algerians, north African Muslims to a man (and woman). Did they react? Barely a whisper. They smiled and clapped as their American rivals, not all that popular in the Muslim world, enjoyed their moment.
Had Jozy celebrated like that at the New Den, Millwall fans may have offered a few oaths. Even the odd oaf. But Pretoria remained peaceful. Scenes like that have been replayed all over South Africa; Uruguayan joy, African misery; German jubilation, English desolation; Dutch delight, Brazilian disbelief. And not a fight in sight. Increíble (that’s unbelievable in Spanish).
The father of this Rainbow Nation has not been well enough to play a public role in proceedings. On the day the tournament kicked off, his great-granddaughter died in a car accident on the way home from the opening concert.
But still, Nelson Mandela’s magic pervades this World Cup, our world. Time after time, the name of Madiba crops up to unify the people, to make them proud, to provide a reference point. He may not even be aware of it.
Long before this tournament began, I was told FIFA had a contingency plan in place should his incredible life come to an end. But somehow he has endured. And you know he loves every minute that this once-divided nation is on display to billions around the planet. Long may it continue. Ngakholeki(yo) (that’s unbelievable in Xhosa).
Dodgy Diego was doing so well. His Argentina side appeared ready to go all the way. Loving it in the spotlight, he told us: “You said I couldn’t coach, but we are winning.”
And they were, in style, despite those curious coaching sessions with Argies pelting the Jabulani at each other’s exposed bottoms at the Pretoria University High Performance Centre. King Diego sat astride his mighty throne (the specially imported R45,000 bidet-toilets he had demanded for his room) and waved to the crowds so much he might have injured his wrist. And then Germany came along and put four past them in the quarterfinals.
Smaller men might have been rude to the media, bitten their dog, turned to illicit substances, or taken a shot at a reporter. But Diego held it together: “I'm as disappointed as all Argentines. To see my country lose a football match is very hard for someone who has worn the shirt.”
Now they want to build a statue of him at home. Unfasslick (that’s also German for unbelievable).
Rich Mkhondo was the sacrificial lamb put in charge of communications by FIFA before this World Cup began. Despite nearly 50 years as an author and journalist, Rich told me back in January during the cricket tour he knew exactly how tough his task was going to be.
Sepp Blatter’s bunch have never been the most popular people and here he was, the kid from Katlehong, supposed to defend them to the hilt. But as the stories of bloodbaths, gangs, crime, and deadly snakes ripped into his nation from around the world did Richie howl "unfair" and banish all foreign journalists?
When the nation cried foul as FIFA got it wrong time and again, did our Richie look disheartened?
And here we are, close to the finish line. And the bloke I remember so well from Rhodes University and the Rand Daily Mail all those years ago is able to tell us this World Cup has been a roaring success.
This week, the predicted influx of rand-rich fans is headed toward the half-a-million mark. Mighty Mkhondo assured us: "We are confident that we will surpass the number of 450 thousand that we initially predicted. And there’s still a few days to go.”
Nswempu (that’s Zulu for unbelievable).
I said before this tournament began that Holland, with Europe’s two best players (Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder and Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben, they met at the Champions League final), were the best outside bet at 12-1 with Paddy Power.
Now unbeaten in a record 25 games and currently on a streak of 10 successive wins, the lurid orange glow has lit up this tournament. They’ve never won it before, and my Olympic experiences at Sydney and Athens suggest they will travel in great numbers, despite a lack of available flights.
The final looms and Arsenal’s lethal Robin Van Persie is just starting to turn it on after injury. In a country settled by Dutch pioneer Jan van Riebeeck and still inhabited by over 10 million who speak a form of their language, the whole thing is, well—ongelofelijk (that’s Dutch for unbelievable).
The much-derided Vuvuzela was supposed to ruin this World Cup. Critics with earplugs from around the world lined up to call for a blanket ban, or just a blanket. But the sound of South Africa 2010 refused to go away.
Then the Vuvuzela turned up at a baseball game in Florida. And at the European Formula One Grand Prix in Valencia. It was banned from the Pamplona Bull Run in Spain but emerged unscathed to become a specialized button on the website YouTube. Push it, and you get a belligerent blast.
Now it is selling out around the world. A simple plastic horn designed only to enhance the atmosphere at poorly attended local football games. Paaaaaarp (that’s Vuvuzela for unbelievable).
Wayne Rooney. Cristiano Ronaldo. The appropriately named Kaka. Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka. The holders Italy. Ah, how the mighty have fallen, as they so often do in African skirmishes. Just Google Isandlwana (1979 was another bad year for England).
Who could have predicted they would all be at home, licking their wounds and watching the final on television?
This is just what football needed: a slap in the face for the overpaid superstars of football.
Leave it instead to tiny Holland to carry the banner, or the young, unfancied Germans. And let the glory belong to Ghana, who were denied a historic place in the last four only by the hand of Luis Suarez. In the end, all three “Hand of God” exponents were laid low. Suarez, Maradona and Henry. Dochreidte (that’s unbelievable in Irish).
Thomas Mlambo is South Africa’s real World Cup winner.
Watched by a huge domestic audience as the SABC struggles, SuperSport presenter Thomas Sipho Mlambo started out as an in-store announcer for a local shopping chain in Johannesburg. Now he’s the authentic voice of African football.
Dealing with anything from the age-wearied cynicism of Terry “It wasn’t a great game” Paine, the sharp insights of John “I can also do rap” Barnes and a host of guests from all over the globe, “Big Brother” never stops smiling.
A former Wits footballer before his knees packed up, teetotal Mlambo wants to get married, own a Maserati and settle down. Or so he says. As long as he doesn’t stop talking football.
They said South Africa couldn’t cover a World Cup properly, let alone host the event. As Thomas says so often through that glittering smile...unbelieeeeeevable (that’s SuperSport for unbelievable).