My very first FIFA World Cup match is...well, less than inspiring.
Although we've been here in Cape Town for only three whole days, I feel like it's been longer due to the amount of things we've packed in. There's still much more to see, of course, but I'm very satisfied with what we've been able to do so far.
Let me backtrack to Friday evening, when we went to the first of three World Cup matches. We had decided to watch the first half of the U.S.-Slovenia match at the rental house and then go into Hout Bay to catch the second, after which we'd get on the coach bus that would take us all the way to Green Point Stadium for the game. It took us a while to find a suitable bar with a large-screen TV, but we quickly settled in for what turned out to be an awesome rally in spite of the disallowed goal by the referee. I was just glad that the U.S. didn't lose, however that third goal probably would have given us the win and four points in Group C instead of two. Sigh.
We parked the cars on the grass playing fields of Kronendal Primary School and boarded one of the buses. Most of the other riders were decked out in red & white, though it wasn't obvious if they were English or South Africans of English descent. A mere five or so minutes after we had departed, an enterprising young American guy interrupted everyone to peddle handmade scarves with attached caps - they had been knit by a waify blond woman who seemed slightly embarrassed to be walking up and down the aisle trolling for sales. The whole scene instantly reminded me of the little Bolivian boys who would get on an inter-city night bus ("buscama") and rattle off a well-rehearsed story about how they were trying to stay off the streets and would appreciate passengers buying small pieces of candy from them. Except that this dude certainly didn't look like he needed any charity. One of the members of our group bought a scarf in the English colors, and I do have to admit it was pretty well-made. And not that expensive either.
Once we arrived at Green Point, you could feel the pre-match excitement building. There were several large corporate sponsor stages where fans could dance along to tunes, have their pictures taken, get their faces painted, etc. The Coca-Cola stage seemed to be the most popular, especially when that song by K'naan came on ("When I get older, I will be stronger...") and the hired dancers shifted into a routine. We also checked out one of the fan shops but were somewhat disappointed with the selection - the official World Cup gear wasn't anything exciting, and at least half of the merchandise was directed at fans of England, Algeria, and The Netherlands (some of the teams yet to play matches in Cape Town).
While walking to our seats, I felt like I was in the UK and not far-away South Africa based on the number of English fans I saw. Sure, there were pockets of Algerians wrapped in their shiny green & white flags, but they were a drop in the bucket by comparison. What struck me was how creative spectators get with their costumes - way more so than at the three Olympiads I had attended (combined!). The most hilarious was a group of five or six Brits decked out in outfits straight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" as The Knights Who Say Ni, complete with chain mail helmets and coconut shells that they clapped together as they trotted. Hysterical! I even stopped two of them to snap a photo.
Walking into the stadium was quite a sight. Not only is the structure itself beautiful, but it was a sea of red & white. I lost count of the number of English flags festooned to the railings below each tier level. One thing I noticed was that almost all of the flags had letters printed or glued to them, usually to proclaim the specific hometown or home region of the fans who had hung them up. A few had more general messages like "Come On, England!" and one even extended recognition to South Africa for being a great host to the World Cup. It dawned on me that you would never see an American flag with such adornments. Would it ever dawn upon you, Dear Reader, that someone would paste felt letters spelling out "Wisconsin" or "Washington State" on to the Stars & Stripes? Interesting to think about how flag etiquette has evolved in different countries.
What was NOT very interesting was the game itself. Really...it was that boring. England looked like it was asleep for the entire first half and barely awake in the second. Algeria, though not particularly inspiring either, managed to keep the Three Lions at bay with good defense, quick passes, and sheer grit. I'm not going to try to dissect the game since I'm a casual soccer (yes, they say "soccer" here in South Africa rather than "football") fan at best and therefore don't have a grasp on the finer points of the game. Rather, I'm more than happy to defer to various sports Web sites to get a play-by-play. The highlight actually was seeing Princes William & Harry in the stands and David Beckham on the English bench through the lenses of my otherwise not-so-powerful binoculars. The two princes appeared fairly vexed by the lack of discipline exhibited by their team.
After the game ended, we picked our way through the dispirited English throngs, smiled at the joyous Algerians, and got back to the bus heading down to Hout Bay. Had England actually won, the picture certainly would have been a lot different. Well, this World Cup is turning out to have many surprises, though I have to feel almost sorry for fans from countries whose national teams have been hyped up so much. They have such high expectations and many of them (aside from the Brazilians, Argentines, and Dutch) have been severely disappointed.
On a final note, I was surprised by how many spectators at the match carrying the flags of their respective home countries. Not England, Algeria, or any other country represented at the World Cup for that matter. Among others, I saw Colombians, Russians, and even two people from tiny Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Lots of Americans here too, though I didn't see anyone actually bearing a U.S. flag.