First off, I’m not a big soccer guy. I know my way around to be able to have a below average conversation about teams and players… Man U., Messi, Barcelona, etc. But I couldn’t tell you the name of the German League or which club team Landon Donovon played for in England. I didn’t think I could keep up with all the hardcore fans that would be there.
Security was a big concern. A week before the games started, there was the incident with the Nigerian team where fans were getting trampled to get their hands on free tickets. Needless to say, it didn’t help to allay my fears of lack of crowd control.
And then there were the vuvuzelas. I tried to do as little research as possible in planning the trip (my buddies I went with planned the whole thing). So when I heard about these things called vuvuzelas about a week before the trip, I was pissed. It was described to me as the scene in Dumb and Dumber when Jim Carrey asks, “Wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?”, but it goes on for two hours straight.
So going in, I had set my expectations pretty low. Third world country, lack of security, a sport I don’t really care for and annoying instruments the whole time. Cheers.
I can say with ease that all of my expectations were blown away.
First, the country is just flat-out gorgeous. We stayed the majority of the time in Cape Town. The city is just like San Francisco, right down to the island prison (Robben Island, where Mandela was jailed for 18 years). It’s very modern and very clean and the people are exceptionally friendly. They have their wine country, which is about a 2 hour drive out and it’s really something to behold. Cape Town’s main attraction is a hike up Table Mountain. On a clear day it has spectacular views. There’s other standard touristy stuff like Cape of Good Hope and Boulders Beach where they have a penguin colony (that’s right, there are penguins in Africa and in the summer you can actually swim with them). These were all great experiences.
My crew also did a 2 day 2 night safari in Kruger National Park in a resort called Sabi Sabi. Basically they have these private game reserves in Kruger where they set up upscale resorts. They market the “Big Five” pretty hard. That’s the lion, water buffalo, elephant, leopard, and rhino. The way it works is you get in these big open air Land Rovers with a guide and tracker. Their jobs are to get out there and find the animals based on the tracks they’re seeing and communicating with the other Land Rovers. The first night we saw a pride of 13 lions just waking up and stretching it out. It’s shocking how close we got to the animals. At one point the lion basically just walked right next to the Land Rover to get to where it needed to go. It was phenomenal. We eventually got to all of the animals minus the leopard, which is really damn elusive. We also saw other mainstays like giraffes, impalas, kudu, and some pretty cool birds. And then at night, you come back and enjoy the good life. Fancy dinner, drinks, etc. Overall it went down as the sweetest thing I’ve ever done.
I also got to do great white shark cage diving. Wow, what a freaking amazing experience. You take a boat out to an area called Shark Alley where the great whites are known to be. You put on the wetsuit and the goggles (no scuba or snorkel gear) and get yourself in the cage that’s attached to the side of the boat. Then they bait the shark over with a giant fish head. As it comes over, the captain tells you to get underwater to get a view of the shark. Naturally the captain has to fuck with the shark by pulling the bait out right as the shark is by the cage. And so that’s when you try to keep your limbs inside the cage. I took comfort in the captain laughing as the shark had its mouth completely open while it was a foot away from us. Good times.
Then there was the soccer. I saw three games all in Cape Town. France-Uruguay, Italy-Paraguay, and England-Algeria. Some solid names, but the games turned out to be relatively crappy. France-Uruguay was nil-nil as was England-Algeria. Italy-Paraguay ended 1-1. Thank God I saw at least one goal.
For me not being a big soccer guy, the actual gameplay was secondary to me. That first France-Uruguay game was electric. It was still the first day of the World Cup after the inaugural South Africa-Mexico game, so people were giddy. Beers were also only $4, so that didn’t hurt our cause. Out of the 80,000 people, I’d say there were about 10,000 vuvuzelas at the stadium. And they all sounded awesome. For whatever reason they sound god-awful on tv. But in person they’re amazing. Each person kind of finds their own sound, almost like a bird’s mating call. The skilled players can play the sound continuously. The best way to describe how fun they are is to say that over the week and a half I was there, not once did I see anyone complain or ask someone to stop playing the vuvuzela anywhere at any time. (This actually caught up with me back in New York. I brought a vuvuzela to a bar to watch the US-Ghana game. I honestly was shocked when people were getting pissed at me. I really just assumed everyone loved them. I think once you get your hands on one and actually get to play it, then you fall in love).
We were in a fan park in Cape Town for the US-England match. Now normally I’m not a big rah-rah go USA person. I support our team, but I’m not going to paint my face to prove it. I showed up to the park with a just single USA vuvuzela to indicate my loyalty. When we showed up the USA fans were outnumbered about 2 to 1. Now maybe it was the booze, or maybe it was because there were more of them than there was of us, but basically something inside me snapped in the moments before the game. I was overcome with this feeling of US pride I’d never felt before. My buddy and I made it a mission to run and find USA flags. It took us about fifteen minutes, but we were able to find the flags. We made it back to the game and basically just went wild with the other US fans that were there. The first goal scored by England hurt pretty badly. Our side went quiet. But we were lucky to score our goal when their goalie screwed up. At the end of game, we were generally relieved to have come away with a draw. And afterwards a giant party started with the English and Americans basically being friends and having a good-ass time. It was one of the best moments of the trip.
There were other memorable moments not safe for print. Overall, I left with the following impressions:
1) Crowd control was done well. No real issues. Overall level of safety was good in Cape Town, but I can definitely say that it would be dumb to be by yourself at night. I’ve heard JoBurg is less safe, but I couldn’t say for sure because we weren’t there.
2) Mexicans roll really deep. They were easily the most overrepresented team, fan-wise. You’d expect a lot of Americans and English, and there were certainly plenty. I just didn’t expect that many Mexicans to be everywhere during every part of the trip.
3) South Africans made sure that we were having a good time. Everywhere we went, people made sure to ask that we were being treated well. It was their moment, and they wanted to make sure we’d leave with positive things to say. Maybe it’s because I’m a jaded New Yorker, but I left with the impression that they were all exceptionally friendly people.
4) Waka-Waka is a great song. That’s the official World Cup song by Shakira. Download it if you haven’t already.
5) All fans of every country were very friendly to each other. I didn’t see any instance of people getting into fights with other teams’ fans. It was nice to see.
6) I wish I’d stayed longer. We left while the games were still in the group round. It’d been great to be there for the US Algeria game. Either way, it still goes down as my best trip.