Day 5 –July 1— A Palestinian goes to the Bantustan

I had to wake up at 5.30am to go to the bus station to catch the train to Port Elizabeth, 1,000 km and 14 hours away by bus.  I had no time to get coffee in the morning, but the wake up jolt I needed came in the ride to the bus station, in a rickety little van whose driver seems to have had it confused with a Ferrari.  It was a good morning from then on.

The trip from Durban to Port Elizabeth passes through the Eastern Cape’s gorgeous scenery, through the Wild Coast, the Transkei and Settler Country—which, as you can imagine, evoked images of land-thieves for this Palestinian.  The beauty of this country is mesmerizing, and the land we passed is quite instructive about the history and current state of South Africa.  Between the glitz, urbanity and modernism of Durban and Port Elizabeth lies a land of contradiction: neglect and poverty interspersed with sporadic affluence.  Nelson Mandela was born in the small village of Mvezo in the Transkei, and we passed close by it.

The Transkei was a South African Bantustan from 1978 until 1994.  Bantustans were a creative idea devised by apartheid leaders to solve their ‘black problem’. The idea behind it was to concentrate the blacks in some of the worst lands in the country, with the least natural resources and infrastructure, call these lands independent countries, make all blacks live in them, and use them as cheap labor for whites when needed. If they ever caused any problems, they wouldn’t be allowed into white areas. To make this work, the apartheid regime sought black tribal leaders that were willing to cooperate, gave them a lot of money and weapons and supported them against rivals that fought for equality. This divided blacks into supporters of apartheid and separation into separate countries and supporters of equality.

The world refused to acknowledge these joke political entities as independent nation states.  Interestingly and tellingly enough, Israel was the only country other than apartheid South Africa to establish relations with these countries, providing their security forces with military training.

Seeing the Transkei was particularly interesting to me because of the parallels between the South African Bantustan model and the current situation in Palestine.  Ariel Sharon, on a visit to his apartheid buddies in the old South Africa remarked at how impressed he was with the Bantustan idea and envisioned that it would provide the best way to resolve the ‘Palestinian problem’.

The analogy between Israeli occupation of Palestine and apartheid has been done before by many.  Even former US President Jimmy Carter wrote about it in his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.

There certainly are similarities and the analogy is persuasive.  In both cases, some meaningless 19th century-based definition of identity (white/coloured/black in SA; Jew/non-Jew in Palestine) was used as the basis for determining what rights each individual has.  One can view white areas of South Africa outside the Transkei as similar to the parts of Palestine occupied in 1948, and the Transkei (and other Bantustans) as the equivalent of the West Bank and Gaza.  In both areas the local population was suppressed to the benefit of the colonialists.  The settler areas in the Trasnkei were more developed and richer than the black areas, just like Israeli colonies on stolen Palestinian lands are richer and more developed than Palestinian areas.

But there are also differences.  One is that the poverty and underdevelopment in the West Bank is the product of a deliberate policy of de-development implemented by Israel over the last 44 years of occupation, which is unlike anything apartheid South Africa ever implemented.  The amount of impediments placed on Palestinian trade, movement and production are probably worse than anything that black South Africans had to endure.  The level of spending on infrastructure during Israeli occupation was the lowest in the world—in spite of Israel collecting very high taxes.  Factories were closed, trade with the outside world was heavily curtailed, and since the early 1990’s movement of goods and individuals within the West Bank has become nearly impossible.  No other place in the world witnesses such a premeditated policy of economy-cide.

Another difference is that in the Transkei, the colonization happened at earlier points in history and was not the premeditated policy of the apartheid regime after the 1970’s, when they decided they would rather keep these areas for blacks.  They sought to give blacks independence (however meaningless) in order to keep them out of white areas. Many white areas, such as some of the beaches of the wild coast, were deserted by whites as they sought to disentangle themselves from having to live near blacks.  In Palestine, however, every single Israeli government has overseen a premeditated program of ethnic cleansing and land theft in order to appropriate the West Bank and Gaza for Jews only.  The recent Israeli policy of isolating the Gaza Strip, however, is similar to what the apartheid regime wanted to do with the Transkei: close it off and leave the people there to their fate.

This is the biggest difference between apartheid and Zionism: apartheid sought to find arrangements for separate living of whites and blacks in South Africa.  Zionism, from its inception as a militant political movement from the 1920’s until today, has sought to murder and transfer Palestinians from the land entirely. The supposedly “liberal” parts of the Zionist movement are the ones that wanted to ‘coexist’ with Palestinians, but separated away from them in a racist arrangement like apartheid.

For Carter and others making the apartheid analogy, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, if it were to continue, would result in a system of apartheid reminiscent of South Africa.  Therefore, in order to avert this fate and rescue Israel from itself, the Palestinians need to be given their own state in which they can live in peace, side-by-side with the Israelis, and the two can then prosper economically using some Tom Friedman and Shimon Peres-approved model of economic development.  Israel would, of course, maintain sovereignty and control over the Palestinian state as every proposal for a two-state solution has made clear.

But if you think about it for a second, it is precisely this sort of two-state-solution that best resembles apartheid.  This point was driven home to me a few years ago when I read what former apartheid South Africa president  F. W. de Klerk had said to a delegation of Palestinians and Israelis:

“…what apartheid originally wanted to achieve is what everybody now says is the solution for Israel and Palestine, namely – partitioning, separate nation states on the bases of ethnicity, different cultures, different languages.”

Precisely.

What we have today in Palestine is not apartheid, it is far worse.  It is a methodic, systematic and premeditated process of colonization and ethnic cleansing.  The Tel Aviv ruling regime continues to function upon the basic formula that inspired the Zionist project from day one: “More land, less Arabs”.  Israel has, in the last 44 years, moved half a million of its citizens into stolen land in the illegally occupied West Bank.  They have ethnically cleansed thousands out of it, and through a process of systemic urbicide and politicide are driving out many more.  The construction of illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian lands continues at an accelerating pace supported and subsidized militarily and financially by every single Israeli government in the past 40 years, and funded by the US Taxpayer.

This was not the case during apartheid.  At even its worst, the apartheid regime leaders never held the criminal determination to ethnically cleanse South Africa of its blacks.  Even in their worst days, South African apartheid government never had people like Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s current Foreign Minister who is a fascist that openly advocates the ethnic cleansing, sterilization and murder of Arabs.  Even South Africa’s white supremacists and extremists, who were part of illegal movements criminalized by the regime, wanted to live separately from blacks and not to ethnically cleanse them.

If one were to analogize the apartheid political spectrum with that of the modern Israeli political spectrum, one could see the equivalent of these white supremacists in the supposed Israeli “peace camp” and its allies in the American progressive movement, who want to achieve peace by separating Palestinians from Jews in Palestine.

Back on the bus, we only arrived at Port Elizabeth at 10pm, the ride taking a full 16 hours, 3 more than scheduled.  But the trip was pleasant nonetheless, mainly thanks to the beauty of the scenery and the good atmosphere on the bus.  There were many Dutch fans who were heading to PE for the Holland-Brazil match, and I spent a lot of time discussing the Dutch’s chances with them. There was a good sense of optimism about the team’s chances.  Even though the Dutch were not playing their usual beautiful game, and even though their stars were not being as creative as they should be, there was a feeling that this team is geared to win, not to impress.

Usually I have an aversion for people who whip out a guitar uninvited and start singing, because they’re usually awful at it and end up annoying everyone in order to attract some attention.  But on this bus, some guy got on and started playing his guitar really well.   He sang rock ballads as well as African songs and most the people on the bus joined in.  Everything is so great in South Africa that even douchebags with guitars are fun to listen to! It’s really been that sort of charmed trip.

We only arrived at Port Elizabeth at 10pm, two hours behind schedule.  I was exhausted and needed to find something to eat desperately.  Across from the backpackers’ hostel were I was staying, I found a Thai restaurant that was closing down.  The owners were some of the most interesting people I’ve met on this trip, and I’ll recount their story in the next entry, so stay tuned.

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The end of the trip; the beginning of the travelogue

At Soccer City, after the Final

My trip has come to an end.  I ended up watching six World Cup 2010 matches: In the round of 16, I saw Argentina vs. Mexico and Holland vs. Slovakia; in the quarter-finals I saw Holland vs. Brazil and Germany vs. Argentina; I saw the Holland vs. Uruguay semi-final; and, most thrillingly, I saw the Spain vs. Holland final.

I met dozens of fascinating and wonderful people, made many friends, and learned a lot.  I thoroughly enjoyed visiting one of the most exciting and beautiful countries in the world, and saw its four biggest cities: Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

After a few days in South Africa I realized this trip was far too enjoyable to spend writing and blogging, particularly as I wanted to write thoughtful pieces and not just quick blogposts with trivial details.

I will now begin writing my travelogue and chronicling my adventures.  Stay tuned…

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Holland vs. Brazil: The Big One

I am writing this preview in Port Elizabeth to the glorious sounds of Brazil fans playing samba outside, and Dutch singing and dancing.  The atmosphere in this city is great, and I can’t wait for this game.  This will be a quick preview that will be best consumed with a look at my previous articles on Brazil and Holland.

This is a very different Holland side from the ones we’ve seen through history, which I’d written about in my preview piece on Holland.  This side actually plays to win and not to entertain. In all four matches so far, they have stuck to a disciplined gameplan with plenty of positional awareness. They scored enough to win, but didn’t go crazy trying to do the impossible as they usually do. Whereas the previous Dutch sides were epitomized by magicians like Cruyff, Van Basten, and Bergkamp this side can best be viewed as the embodiment of Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt.  ‘The world’s only defensive striker’, as Liverpool fans affectionately call him, was my man of the match against the Slovaks.  His tireless running, excellent defensive and attacking play held the Dutch together.  He created the second goal for Sneijder and was impressive throughout with his intelligence.  Kuyt is not the fastest, most skilled or most prolific of strikers, but he is among the world’s most hard-working and most intelligent.  I like to think of him as The Practical and Poor Man’s Dennis Bergkamp.

If you talk to Holland fans, however, they are certainly not disappointed with this turn to pragmatism, but are rather hopeful about it—as am I.  In the past 40 years Holland have arguably produced more memorable performances and individuals than any other national team, but it has not helped them win.  Cutting down on the flair might actually help them win, in the same way Brazil’s 1994 side ushered an era of pragmatism and triumph for Brazilian football.

When a team wins the World Cup, it never does so by being excellent in all its games, there will inevitably be bad matches. What makes a world champion, however, is the ability to grind out wins when you’re not playing too well, as well as winning when you are.  Holland have barely gotten out of second gear in their four matches so far, and perhaps they have a lot left in the tank for the coming match(es).  If they can turn on the style against the Brazilians, as they showed they could in Euro 2008, it should make for a wonderful match.

Brazil, on the other hand, will be up for this.  As I wrote in my preview of Brazil:

In Julio Cesar, Brazil have one of the world’s best goalkeepers.  In Lucio, they have one of the best central defenders, and in Maicon, they have the world’s undeniably best right-back.  These three are fresh from leading Internazionale to winning the Italian league and Cup and the Champions League.  Along with the excellent Juan in central midfield and the decent Michael Bastos in left-back, Brazil have without a doubt the best defensive line in the World Cup.  This is of course very unusual historically.  Brazil have never been famed for producing excellent defenders of goalkeepers, but rather strikers and midfielders.  This year the pattern is reversed.

In midfield, Brazil are relying on a cast of players that on paper is not as impressive as some of their opponents.  Gilberto Silva, a holding midfielder, is well past his best, and at his best he was a mediocre players at Arsenal.  Ramires is good but not great, Elano can be impressive at times but is hardly one of the world’s best.  The mercurial Robinho remains a bit of mystery.  There is no doubting his precocious talents, which led Real Madrid and Manchester City to spend big money on him.  But he has continuously failed to live up to his potential—the joke in Brazil is that Robinho has for the past 5 years been calling himself next year’s best player in the world.

But Brazil’s most important player is Kaka—the Real Madrid genius was world player of the year in 2007 and is one of the best players of his generation.  He has an incredible vision of the pitch and is the sort of number 10 that teams can only dream about having.  I will never forget the pass he played to Hernan Crespo in the Champions League final in 2005—possibly one of the best through passes ever.  But Kaka has had a mediocre season with Real Madrid this year after a move from AC Milan.  There are questions about his fitness and the weight of expectations hangs heavily on his shoulders.

Upfront Brazil have the prolific Luis Fabiano.  Everyone keeps emphasizing that Fabiano is no Romario or Ronaldo, but then again, nobody is.  He is still a good striker who can notch in a decent haul of goals.

On paper, the midfield and attack are not the world’s best and could struggle.  In the absence of Ronaldinho and other creative midfielders, the team could be too reliant on Kaka to perform well.  With his current lack of fitness and loss of form, this could spell trouble, and Dunga may yet come to regret some of his omissions.

But this, let us not forget, is Brazil.  They live for the World Cup.  It is their country’s bread and butter and the most important thing for all their footballers.  If you want to understand the importance of the World Cup for Brazilians, just look at the face of Maicon as it turned into that of a child crying with excitement after scoring in the first round against North Korea.  This is one of the world’s best players who has just won a historic treble playing for Internazionale—yet he was still crying for scoring in a first round game against an abject North Korea.

Brazilian footballers live for the World Cup, they only have club careers to pay the bills and stay fit.  This is why seemingly mediocre and underperforming players like Robinho, Elano and Gilberto Silva turn into world beaters in the World Cup.  The level of focus and dedication for these four weeks every four years is unmatched everywhere.  Compare and contrast that to the pathetic superstar prima donnas of England.  People like Lampard, Terry and Rooney live for their club careers and really care about winning the Champions League and the domestic league.  Sure, they’d like to win the World Cup, but they want it nowhere near as much as the Brazilians.  If you asked someone like Lampard if he’d rather win the Champions League or the World Cup, he’d reply with some vacuous PR-agent tailored stream of inanities about “pride in wearing the England shirt”, “remaining focused”, and “giving it 110%”.  Ask Maicon, Robinho or Elano if they would give up their entire club football career for a World Cup winners’ medal, and they will not hesitate to say yes.

And this is what makes the difference for the Brazilians.  No matter the tactics, the formation, the personnel and the opponents, when the Seleccao takes the pitch in a World Cup game, they are a different animal from the other teams.

This year, with their exceptional defense, they should be hard to score against, and with the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano hungry to succeed, they will certainly cause a lot of trouble for their opponents.

This may not be a beautiful Brazilian team in the mold of the 1982 side and may resemble more the 1994 and 2002 sides.  But remember that the 1994 and 2002 sides won the World Cup, while the 1982 side won the consolation of producing one of the best highlight reels of history.  Brazil may not produce a highlights reel to match that of Zico and Socrates, but they are more likely to win it this year.

And so we arrive at a match between two of the greatest entertainers in world football history, who have both moderated their flair recently, but are still formidable teams.  Brazil will have the edge of wanting it more and have the better defense.  Holland have the better midfield and attack, and will be very eager to avenge decades of World Cup disappointment.  Tens of thousands of fans from each country will be cheering on the teams in a wonderful stadium.  I cannot wait.  I will be tweeting the happenings of the game on my twitter feed at twitter.com/saifedean

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Days 2, 3 and 4—June 28, 29, 30 –Durban

Initially, my plan was to stay in Joburg for a week, watching the Japan-Paraguay game in nearby Pretoria and the Ghana-Uruguay quarter-final.  But with the Dutch in action in Durban in a match for which I also had a ticket, I couldn’t resist and decided to head down to the coastal city I’d heard so much about.  On my connecting flight from Doha, Qatar to Joburg I’d met Lea, an American backpacker from Oklahoma that had been traveling all over the world.  She came with me to the Argentina-Mexico game and decided to come along to Durban as well.

In the airport I coincidentally ran into Tony Karon, my old friend from New York, who had just landed and had a layover on his way to his hometown of Cape Town. Tony and I have a lot in common: mostly an unhealthy obsession with apartheid, Zionism, Liverpool football club and obscure global restaurants in New York. In 40 minutes we caught up on a year of politics, economics, football and life.  The wonderful coincidences of this trip never end!

We arrived in Durban 3 hours before the Holland-Slovakia game and were worried we wouldn’t make it on time, since we needed to drop our stuff off at a hostel first.  But in the airport we ran into Anna and Andy, a couple from Mexico and England who had the same problem, but were staying in the conveniently located Hilton, which is very close to the stadium.  We shared a cab, dropped our stuff off at their hotel, and went to the game.

I have always loved these sort of intimate friendships that develop on the spot among football fans.  The mere fact that two people are going to watch football together breaks down reserve and all barriers of race, religion, color and politics—The beautiful game makes for instantaneous solid friendships.

The ride to Moses Mabhida stadium was incredibly fast and smooth.  I couldn’t believe how easy it was for so many thousands of people to enter and exit a stadium so quickly.  The stadium itself, as I mentioned before, is a beauty to behold and probably the nicest stadium I’ve ever seen.  The game was good, though not great, it had a very jovial atmosphere and the Dutch and Slovak supporters were very lively and fun.  Holland were in control throughout and never looked like they would lose it.  The Slovaks deserve a lot of respect for putting up a good performance, but ultimately, the Dutch were a class apart.  I had tipped the Slovaks to defeat Italy from the day the draw was made, and thought they’d be one of the surprises of the tournament.  Had they not met the Dutch, they might have progressed further.

After the game, we met a Durbanite named David who showed us around his gorgeous town.  Durban has Africa’s largest seaport, and is situated in a really beautiful location, near wonderful long sandy beaches and beautiful rolling green hills.  With its relaxed atmosphere, friendly people, wonderful location, great weather and wide streets it reminded me of San Francisco. I realized I liked it here and decided I would relax here for a couple of days and wouldn’t go back to Pretoria for the Japan-Paraguay game.

After walking around town, we went to Florida St, Durban’s hub of bars and restaurants, and picked a place to watch the Brazil-Chile game.  The atmosphere in the bar was wonderful, with Slovak and Dutch fans partying together along with the locals and many Brazilians who had remained in Durban after the Brazil-Portugal game.  I made a lot of new friends, including two Brazilian Vasco da Gama fans who were very impressed with the vintage 1970’s Vasco shirt I was wearing.  Vasco, the team that gave the world Romario, is my Brazilian childhood team.  It was great to catch up with real Vasco fans and talk about the club, though the current state of the Rio giants makes Liverpool’s troubles seem like a picnic.  I also met a group of Palestinian and Lebanese guys who had flew in from the United Arab Emirates.

After Brazil’s victory, it was confirmed that we had a mouth-watering quarter-final ahead of us pitting the Dutch and the Brazilians.  It was in Port Elizabeth, a twelve hour drive away from Durban, and Andy told me he had tickets to that game which he did not intend to use as he wanted to go to Cape Town.  I again changed my plans, returned my Uruguay-Ghana ticket to FIFA, and decided to head to Port Elizabeth with Andy’s ticket and a bottomless well of anticipation.

In Durban I stayed in a dorm in the University of KwaZulu Natal—Howard College.  The college has a magnificent campus overlooking the city with gorgeous buildings and parks.  The students and the people we dealt with were all very nice and friendly.

I decided to take it easy the next day, sleeping in and resting to recover from the travel and exhaustion of the past three days.  I later went to the Fifa Fan Park to watch the Portugal-Spain game with David, Andy, Anna and Lea. It was a fun game, and the atmosphere in the fan park was spectacular. Portugal were very strongly supported due to the heavy Portuguese influence on Durban, and there were many who supported Spain.  It was a good game, and Spain fully deserved their victory.

Bunny Chow: Delicious

Wednesday was the first day since June 11 that did not contain World Cup matches, as teams were resting for the quarter-finals. I decided to explore Durban.  I walked around the city center, saw the Indian market and sampled the wonderful Durbanite dish everyone talked so much about: the bunny chow, an Indian curry in a hollowed-out bread bun. It was delicious.  I also went to the uShaka Marine World and decided to make up for the absence of footballing excitement by swimming with sharks. The South African coast is notorious for the presence of sharks, and in uShaka you can get into a plastic conatiner and swim within inches of them. It was nice.

On the Durban beach

Later on, David suggested that we go watch ‘Bafunny Bafunny’ a South African comedy show by six of the country’s best comedians focusing on the World Cup.  It was hilarious, though obviously some of the references went over my head, as did the all the Zulu and Afrikaaner terms that were used. Comedy, however, is always insightful and contains kernels of truth, and I think listening to comedians can provide one with an excellent insight into a place and the state of mind of its inhabitants.  In the same way listening to George Carlin or Dave Chapelle can help you understand America, listening to these comedians was a good intro to South Africans.

Black, white and coloured comedians all took the stage, and jokes about race were not spared, which, frankly is a good sign—in a post-racial society, race would be no different from football, Rugby or other topics that can be joked about.  “My white neigboor called the cops on me once because I had the radio too loud.  The next week, when thieves cleaned up my whole house in front of him, he didn’t think to call the cops, since he had no idea they are thieves; ‘you all look the same to me,’ he said.”

South Africans were visibly proud of their achievement in hosting the World Cup, and quite happy with the organization and how the country came together.  ‘What happened to all the homeless? I really want to know what they did with them for this month?! We have to find out,’ joked one.  ‘I heard the government invited Madonna and Angelina Jolie and they adopted all the homeless children off the streets.’

But the comedians were clearly irritated with the excesses of their government and how much it had bent over backwards to accommodate Fifa, who, in return, can’t even tell the world whether a ball crossed a line.  There were plenty of pro-Rugby and anti-football jokes, which were mostly rehashed material from American comedians who love to hate the sport more than they actually hate it.  Such attention and jealousy, of course, can only be taken as a compliment by the supremely confident Beautiful Game.

All the way at the bottom of the world, it was amusing to see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict still provided plenty of fodder for jokes: “Don’t Jews and Muslims realize they have a lot in common? They both don’t eat pork! Maybe there’s something in pork that calms you down.”

The Durban coastline and skyline

Some of the funniest jokes were about crime, with one comedian saying that he can’t wait for July 12th, when the World Cup ends and South Africans do away with their charade of good behavior and go back to murdering and hating each other. “How bad is crime in South Africa”, one comedian asked, “Nigerian criminals come here for their practical exams, that’s how bad.”  Commenting on the fears of white South Africans of crime and their will to emigrate, comedian Barry Hilton ended the evening with an emotional appeal for everyone to stay in South Africa and not emigrate, emphasizing that he is here to stay and doesn’t want to leave. “I can’t bloody a get passport anywhere else.”

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Brazil: Top Dogs

Historically, Brazil are the top dogs of the game of football.  They are the only team to have participated in every World Cup.  They have won it five times, finished second twice, and made the semi-finals three times.  The World Cup is Brazil’s ‘thing’—the entire country is obsessed with it and Brazilian players care about it more than their club football or any other personal or team honor.  Since the 1960’s, the nation has come to define itself and gain its global pride from football.

The passion that Brazilians have for the game is something else.  I can’t claim to have watched live football everywhere in the world, but I’ve watched it in several places and I know that nothing at all can compare to the electrifying atmosphere of the Maracana, the world’s greatest stadium.  I’ve been to the Maracana five times in my life; three times to watch domestic Rio de Janeiro matches (including the Rio derby of Flamnego vs Fluminense) and twice to watch the Brazilian national team in the 1989 Copa America.  For as long as I live I will never forget the feeling I felt the moment I entered the Maracana for the first time. The gorgeous pitch surrounded by thousands of colorful fans and the deafening noise made my heart skip a beat.  I was hooked on the game from that moment.

Brazil’s first World Cup win only came in 1958.  They were favorites in 1938, but were eliminated in the semi-final after foolishly resting their best player the tournament’s top scorer Leonidas.  In 1950, it was considered a done deal that they would clinch the cup in the newly inaugurated Maracana, only for the Uruguayans to shock them in one of football’s biggest upsets (which you can read about in my Uruguay preview).

But in 1958 Brazil had a young kid join the team who was a bit special.  17-year-old Pele had barely been a footballer for a couple of years when he was picked for the World Cup, but he did not disappoint, scoring six goals, including two in the final against Sweden.  He did not look out of place alongside an already great team that contained Bellini, Mario Zagallo, Didi, Vava and the mesmerizing winger Garrincha.  Garrincha, of course, is another of the greats of Brazilian football.  He was born to a dirt-poor family in Rio, and had severe physical problems at birth.  Physically and mentally he couldn’t develop healthily.  Initially, doctors suspected he would not be able to walk, and as a full-grown adult, one of his feet was a full six inches taller than the other.  One would think that would be a hindrance to a footballer, but Garrincha succeeded in turning it into a blessing, building his entire gameplay around his deceiving turns of pace and tricky running.  He remains a unique enigma—a man of genius and superb physical achievement on the pitch, despite physical and mental deformities that were to destroy his life off the pitch.

With Garrincha and Pele in top form, the Brazilians finally exorcised their Uruguayan ghosts, and became, to this day, the only team from South America or Europe to win a World Cup in the other continent.

Brazil were to repeat their success four years later in Chile, with Garincha this time being the superstar of the cup after Pele was injured early on.

Brazil disappointed in 1966, getting eliminated in the first round after a thoroughly violent kicking from the Portuguese team. But the Brazilians would be back in 1970 with one of the best teams in the history of the World Cup.  Coached by Mario Zagallo (who was a player in the 1958 and 1962 victories) the team was built around Pele and contained an amazing array of talent all across.  It was this team more than any other that has given Brazil their magical billing as the wizards of football.  In attack, Brazil had the clinical Jairzinho, who remains the only player to ever score in all his World Cup matches up to the final, alongside the great Rivelino, Tostao, and Pele.

The Brazilians marched to the final in emphatic style, where they came up against an Italian team composed of some of the best players in Europe.  The weather and altitude may have helped the Brazilians, but there was no denying the comprehensive victory which Brazil achieved by winning 4-1. Having won it three times, Brazil got to keep the Jules Rimet trophy forever.  The team became synonymous with footballing perfection.

But after 1970 Brazilian football went into the doldrums.  Their 1974 team was defeated solidly by the magnificent Dutch of Johan Cruyff.  In 1978, Brazil claim (rather persuasively) to have been cheated out of a World Cup final place by the Argentine hosts and their generous Peruvian opponents. The second round at that time was a group round where the top team for each group qualifies for the final.  Brazil had almost sealed their spot in the final, unless Argentina were to beat Peru by more than 4 goals in their last gial.  The Peruvians seem to have been excessively helpful to the Argentines, particularly their Argentine-born goalkeeper who did not seem very interested in stopping the Argentines from scoring.  The role of the Argentine military junta in the 1978 World Cup remains one that arouses plenty of suspicion.

But then in 1982 the Brazilians gave the world another great side, one that is rated by many as the greatest team ever.  With the incredible talents of Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Julio Cesar, and Eder Brazil were expected to walk the World Cup.  They dazzled the world with their intricate passing game and preposterous skill, giving the worldwide TV audience further reason to adore Brazilian football.  And as if people needed more reason to hate Italian football, the Italian team, which on paper seemed no match for the Brazilians, somehow managed to defeat Brazil in the second-round thanks to a hat-trick by Paolo Rossi—fresh out of jail for match-fixing.  The good Doctor Socrates and his teammates trudged back home in one of the greatest disappointments in football history—good had demolished evil; ugliness had battered beauty.

But beauty was back in 1986, adamant on getting revenge, but again it was thwarted, this time by the French European champions of Michel Platini—on penalties in a memorable quarter-final regarded as one of the classic matches of the World Cup.  This was the end of the third great Brazilian generation, and they had failed to win the World Cup.  It was a bitter blow that continues to haunt the likes of Zico to this day.

The 1990 team was not as spectacular as the ‘82 and ’86 ones, but was still something special.  It had the remnants of the ’86 generation in it (Careca, Alemao) as well as some young blood which would be back in 1994 (Dunga, Jorginho, Branco).  They won their three matches in the first round convincingly, but because of the wretched form of Argentina in the first round (barely sneaking through as one of the third-place ranked teams) they were drawn against them in the second round.  Brazil went into the game on fire.  They laid siege to the Argentine goal, looked set to hit a dozen goals, and they hit the woodwork on several occasions.  And yet, somehow, the Argentines survived all the pressure.  And somehow, Diego Maradona managed to run with the ball in one of his rare ventures into the Brazilian half.  He ran and drew five Brazilian players to him, and then slid the ball to Claudio Caniggia who slotted it home. Brazil continued to bombard the Argentines, but to no avail.  Somehow an awful Argentine side had managed to defeat the excellent Brazilians.  If there was ever an unjust game in football, this was it.

Brazil’s excellent left-back, Branco, was sick and helpless during the match, and several players reported not feeling too well.  For years, there had been suspicion that the Argentines had spiked water bottles and gave them to Brazilian players to drink from them.  A few years ago, when he got his own TV show, Diego Maradona hosted Pele for a frank discussion, during which Pele asked Maradona about this incident.  Maradona openly admitted that in fact the Argentines did spike the Brazilians’ water.

And so Brazil went from disappointment to disappointment, for twenty-four years failing to win the World Cup.  It’s worth noting here that even through this supposedly bad period of Brazilian football, Brazil were probably cheated out of two World Cups, and were twice very unlucky to lose out when they should have done better. Not too bad for a disastrous era, if you think of it, and only goes to underscore the greatness of Brazilian football.

But this was to all change with the emergence of the great Romario, who led the team to victory in 1994.  Brazil were coached by Carlos Albero Parreira, who was widely criticized as the man who killed the beautiful Brazilian game for the sake of a pragmatic defensively solid game.  Parreira was widely hated in Brazil, and everyone expected that the Brazilians couldn’t win while playing like Europeans.  But that was unfair.  With the excellent Mauro Silva and Dunga calling the shots in the center of midfield, and the substitute central defenders of Aldair and Marcio Santos playing like Italians, Brazil had the platform to allow Romario, Bebeto, Rai, Mazinho, Zinho and the full-backs Leonardo, Branco and Jorginho to dazzle.  Even the goalkeeper Taffarel played well—a first for a Brazilian goalkeeper! Brazil had modernized, they had not become ugly.

Brazil was finally back.  After 24 years dominated by Germany and Argentina, Brazil returned and won the cup for an unprecedented fourth time. This marked the beginning of the current Brazilian epoch where everyone thinks of Brazil as the indomitable force of football, while marketing executive treat the team as a cross between the Harlem Globetrotters and Britney Spears.

One particular sportswear company (whose real name I will not mention since they have too many lawyers and are unafraid to use them… let’s just call them Mike) became the practical owner of the Brazilian team in the mid-1990’s.  Mario Zagallo (yes, the same one), who was assistant coach in 1994, returned to take charge of the team, and seemed quite happy to outsource half his job to the hyper commercialized bandwagon of Mike.

Picking players stopped being a matter of building a proper balanced team, but rather an exercise in promoting young players for sale in Europe and hawking Mike boots.  In the year leading up to the 1998 World Cup, the Brazilian national team was a global circus pitching up in every corner of the world to play lucrative promotional matches for Mike.  Stadiums everywhere from Thailand to Kuwait to Guatemala were added to the players’ itineraries. This took its toll on the players’ fitness, and was causing them burn out.  The great young emerging talent of Ronaldo, who was excelling with Barcelona and Inter, was the center-piece of Brazil’s marketing image, and was dragged all over the world for these charades on top of his already heavy European league schedule.

The sad and inevitable result was that the players arrived at the 1998 World Cup burned out physically and mentally.  The Brazilian team was a shadow of the 1994 side.  They had Ronaldo upfront who could score goals at will, but had hardly any other functioning parts in the side.  Romario, who had been on terrific form leading to the World Cup, was excluded after suffering a small injury.  The incident continues to cause acrimony in Brazilian football circles.  It was Zagallo’s assistant, Zico, who had lobbied to eliminate Romario, causing Romario to immortalize the two with a wonderful toilet decoration job in his Rio de Janeiro restaurant that featured Zico holding toilet paper, ready to use it, while Zagallo sat on the toilet.

Now, I am personally completely and utterly biased to Romario, so take this with a giant dollop of salt.  The best way to understand what happened is that it was Zico’s jealousy of Romario that motivated him to pressure Zagallo, who was already old and losing it, to drop Romario.  Zico comes from the great generation that blew three chances of winning the World Cup in ’78, ’82 and ’86.  And just after Zico retired, Romario dragged Brazil to a World Cup win almost single-handedly.  Doing it again would’ve been unbearable to Zico. It would’ve been far better to drop him so Zico could hog more of the limelight for himself, and possibly replace Zagallo as national team coach afterwards.

On a personal note, it was at this point that I stopped being a Brazil fan.  The Mike circus and butchering of the team was already unbearable, but dropping my man Romario was a step too far.

Brazil badly missed Romario in the World Cup, particularly in the final. Before that match, the circus finally got to Ronaldo, and he suffered from a seizure in the hotel.  He was initially dropped from the starting line-up for the final, but then reinstated 40 minutes before the game. The exact details of the story remain unclear, but the overall picture is: the pressure of the tournament weighed too heavily on Ronaldo’s shoulders and he could not take it and had a seizure on the day of the game.  He was then pressured into taking the pitch, and many suggest that Mike were behind this.  With Ronaldo in a daze and out of the game, Brazil were exposed by France for the weak incoherent team they were.  Their defense was shambolic, and their midfield utterly dominated by the French who had Zidane and Petit in magnificent form.

It was a day of infamy in Brazilian football.  Ronaldo’s plight was heart-wrenching. He was the victim of Mike who had butchered the Brazilian team’s goose that lay the golden trophies for the sake of a few more boots sold.  Romario would never forgive Zico and Zagallo, and the acrimony in Brazil led to parliamentary investigations and massive outrage.

But with the image of the team tarnished, the Mike bandwagon slowed down a bit and the team could prepare properly for the 2002 World Cup, which was to be very different after Luis Felip Scolari took over the team.  If there was one man who embodied the opposite of the traditional image of Brazilian football, it was Scolari.  His tactics were dirty, pragmatic and defensive.  He believed in winning at all costs and encouraged his players to play-act, waste time and fool referees.  But it worked.  In a forgettable World Cup, Brazil were the only team that impressed and took home the trophy.

There was a very short period of rest between the end of the European season and the beginning of the World Cup. Most of the best players in Europe were too tired to play, and then had to travel half-way around the world to Korea and Japan, and acclimatize to the hot weather. Pre-tournament favorites Argentina and France crashed out in the first round.  Third and fourth favorites Italy and Spain crashed out in the second round and quarter-finals to Korea (and, many would say, a team of referees, as well.)

Most of Brazil’s players, however, did not have this problem. Ronaldo had just returned from an injury that ruled him out for most of the season, and was fresh and rested.  Rivaldo and Ronaldinho had fall-outs with their coaches in AC Milan and PSG and had not played much in the later part of the season.  The players based in Brazil don’t have the same demanding schedule of the Europe-based opponents.

This was certainly the least glorious of all Brazil triumphs in the World Cup.  They needed the help of the referee to disallow a perfectly legitimate Belgium goal in the second round, and had Rivaldo engage in a shameful bit of play-acting that helped eliminate Turkey in the semi-final.  But the real glory belonged to the wonderful Ronaldo, who erased the memories of 1998 by scoring 8 goals, including two in the final, and being the player of the tournament.  Since 1978, not a single player had managed to score more than 6 goals in a World Cup.  This was just rewards for him, winning the World Cup and writing his name as one of the all-time greats of the game.

Just like the triumph of 1994 fueled the marketing bandwagon in 1998, the triumph of 2002 did the same for 2006. The team was, in many ways, reminiscent of the 1998 shambles.  Under Carlos Alberto Parreira, the team entered the World Cup with a sense of entitlement and overconfidence that would not bode well for them.  Their defense looked dodgy and the insistence on playing all the major superstars meant that there was no balance in midfield, with Kaka and Ronaldinho both playing out of their favored positions.  In their first round games against Croatia and Australia, there was a clear sense that they only won thanks to their opponents not having proper finishers.  In the second-round, Ghana’s woeful finishing also let Brazil off the hook and a clearly offside goal by Adriano clinched victory.  But at the quarter-final Brazil were to meet the French, who had the magnificent Thierry Henry in fine form.  The winning French goal came from a moment that typified the problem with that Brazilian team: As a free-kick was swung in, Roberto Carlos was too distracted adjusting his socks to bother mark Henry, who ran unto the cross and finished emphatically.  Roberto Carlos had at this stage become a parody of the great footballer he once was, and played with a sense of entitlement that suggested he thought no one could dare score against Brazil.

And so the cyclical game of expectations continues this year, as the failure of 2006 has diminished expectations for 2010 and muted the marketing bandwagons that are the harbingers of doom.

Today’s Brazil team

Dunga: Not an idiot

The great Dunga, who had played in the ’90, ’94, and ’98 World Cups had now taken over the reins of the national team. From his days as a player Dunga had always been a polarizing figure in Brazilian football—some think he’s a genius, while others view him as an incompetent unskilled oaf. This has roots in his childhood days stretches back to his childhood days—his nickname Dunga literally means ‘the dumb one’.  And this continues to this day in his capacity as coach.

On Dunga the player, I certainly side with the view that he is a genius.  A central midfielder with a great vision of the field, he always had the skill to dictate an entire game.  Watching him in the Maracana, I will never forget his unbelievable ability to play long passes from one corner of the pitch to the other that would land precisely where he wanted them—right on the chest of Branco, Romario or Bebeto.  Dunga the player was a bit like Xavi Hernandez.  But this is not the most popular mold of midfielders in Brazil, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s, where midfielders were expected to dribble, pass, score and dazzle. His modern game was new, but it surely was effective and decisive in 1994.

Dunga the coach, however, remains a bit of a mystery, and today’s game against Holland will go a long way towards assessing his merits.  Since taking over he has ruled the team with a strong dogged determination and self-conviction.  He has built a solid team that plays well together, but did so at the expense of eliminating some of the best players available for selection.

Dunga has so far won everything in which he was competed.  He won the Copa America in 2008, as well as the Confederations Cup in 2009.  He finished top of the marathon-like and very difficult South American qualifying group—a hugely respectable achievement.  But these successes have not assuaged his critics or convinced them that he is the right man for the job.  He has not achieved these wins with the type of panache expected of Brazil teams.  He has had far too many unconvincing matches and disappointing results.  In the world of Brazilian football, only constantly winning in impeccable style will assuage the 180 million football critics.

The biggest criticism of Dunga is about his perceived defensive and cautious style.  Like in 1994 and 2002, there are loud protests that Dunga has betrayed the beautiful Brazilian game for the sake of ugly European pragmatism.  The second biggest criticism concerns his elimination of some creative names for the sake of workhorse unspectacular players.  The biggest fuss concerned the elimination of the great Ronaldinho, who has recovered some of his form and could bring Brazil some magic if needed.  But the AC Milan midfielder is still a shadow of his former self.  His fitness is down, he can no longer manipulate defenses like he used to, and most importantly for Dunga he has never shown an ability to be disciplined.  Dunga will have none of that in his team.

But the most unjustified of Dunga’s decisions, for me, is his elimination of the wonderful Alexander Pato.  The AC Milan striker, only 20, is a joy to watch and a true world star in the making.  He is powerful, fast, and a clinical finisher.  He left Brazil at 17 years of age to join the Italian giants, and whereas many older and more established Brazilians struggle to make it on the big European stage, Pato has looked like a seasoned accomplished veteran who’s been doing this all his life.   He would be an excellent player to have in the World Cup, even if just to bring off the bench.

There have also been protests at Dunga’s elimination of the great Ronaldo, still banging in goals at 33 after an 18 year career, and Adriano.

But these decisions serve to highlight the nature of Dunga’s regime and why they can be viewed again as one of the favorites.  Dunga is not interested in continuing to look for the best 11 players to play in his team.  He rather wants to build the best regular consistent and reliable team.  Whereas most national teams arrive at the World Cup unclear about their starters and formation, Dunga has settled on the basic formation and selection for years. The players have had plenty of time to get to play together and get used to one another and have developed a strong sense of camaraderie among them, which one can see during their goal celebrations.

Let’s remember that the players omitted from the team matter not one bit for the World Cup—what matters are the players on the pitch, and Brazil have a good cast of players molded into an excellent team.

In Julio Cesar, Brazil have one of the world’s best goalkeepers.  In Lucio, they have one of the best central defenders, and in Maicon, they have the world’s undeniably best right-back.  These three are fresh from leading Internazionale to winning the Italian league and Cup and the Champions League.  Along with the excellent Juan in central midfield and the decent Michael Bastos in left-back, Brazil have without a doubt the best defensive line in the World Cup.  This is of course very unusual historically.  Brazil have never been famed for producing excellent defenders of goalkeepers, but rather strikers and midfielders.  This year the pattern is reversed.

In midfield, Brazil are relying on a cast of players that on paper is not as impressive as some of their opponents.  Gilberto Silva, a holding midfielder, is well past his best, and at his best he was a mediocre players at Arsenal.  Ramires is good but not great, Elano can be impressive at times but is hardly one of the world’s best.  The mercurial Robinho remains a bit of mystery.  There is no doubting his precocious talents, which led Real Madrid and Manchester City to spend big money on him.  But he has continuously failed to live up to his potential—the joke in Brazil is that Robinho has for the past 5 years been calling himself next year’s best player in the world.

But Brazil’s most important player is Kaka—the Real Madrid genius was world player of the year in 2007 and is one of the best players of his generation.  He has an incredible vision of the pitch and is the sort of number 10 that teams can only dream about having.  I will never forget the pass he played to Hernan Crespo in the Champions League final in 2005—possibly one of the best through passes ever.  But Kaka has had a mediocre season with Real Madrid this year after a move from AC Milan.  There are questions about his fitness and the weight of expectations hangs heavily on his shoulders.

Upfront Brazil have the prolific Luis Fabiano.  Everyone keeps emphasizing that Fabiano is no Romario or Ronaldo, but then again, nobody is.  He is still a good striker who can notch in a decent haul of goals.

On paper, the midfield and attack are not the world’s best and could struggle.  In the absence of Ronaldinho and other creative midfielders, the team could be too reliant on Kaka to perform well.  With his current lack of fitness and loss of form, this could spell trouble, and Dunga may yet come to regret some of his omissions.

But this, let us not forget, is Brazil.  They live for the World Cup.  It is their country’s bread and butter and the most important thing for all their footballers.  If you want to understand the importance of the World Cup for Brazilians, just look at the face of Maicon as it turned into that of a child crying with excitement after scoring in the first round against North Korea.  This is one of the world’s best players who has just won a historic treble playing for Internazionale—yet he was still crying for scoring in a first round game against an abject North Korea.

Brazilian footballers live for the World Cup, they only have club careers to pay the bills and stay fit.  This is why seemingly mediocre and underperforming players like Robinho, Elano and Gilberto Silva turn into world beaters in the World Cup.  The level of focus and dedication for these four weeks every four years is unmatched everywhere.  Compare and contrast that to the pathetic superstar prima donnas of England.  People like Lampard, Terry and Rooney live for their club careers and really care about winning the Champions League and the domestic league.  Sure, they’d like to win the World Cup, but they want it nowhere near as much as the Brazilians.  If you asked someone like Lampard if he’d rather win the Champions League or the World Cup, he’d reply with some vacuous PR-agent tailored stream of inanities about “pride in wearing the England shirt”, “remaining focused”, and “giving it 110%”.  Ask Maicon, Robinho or Elano if they would give up their entire club football career for a World Cup winners’ medal, and they will not hesitate to say yes.

And this is what makes the difference for the Brazilians.  No matter the tactics, the formation, the personnel and the opponents, when the Seleccao takes the pitch in a World Cup game, they are a different animal from the other teams.

This year, with their exceptional defense, they should be hard to score against, and with the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano hungry to succeed, they will certainly cause a lot of trouble for their opponents.

This may not be a beautiful Brazilian team in the mold of the 1982 side and may resemble more the 1994 and 2002 sides.  But remember that the 1994 and 2002 sides won the World Cup, while the 1982 side won the consolation of producing one of the best highlight reels of history.  Brazil may not produce a highlights reel to match that of Zico and Socrates, but they are more likely to win it this year.

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Day 1 – June 27 – Johannesburg

Picking up my tickets

The arrival was smooth and easy.  I landed on time, picked up a SIM card, picked up my match tickets, and went to the hostel where I was staying.  I checked in, showered, and then went to meet up with my old friend Chris Kasrils, his brother Andy, and their father Ronnie.  I’d never met Ronnie Kasrils before, but had heard a lot about him.  A veteran of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress, Kasrils was a leading anti-apartheid fighter.  He was a founding member and later chief of Intelligence of Umkhonto we Sizwe—the military wing of the ANC.  He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the ANC.  A wanted fugitive for many years, his family lived in London while he travelled around the world in disguise with fake passports.  (The most tragic result of this displacement was that his son Chris became an Arsenal fan.)

After apartheid ended, Ronnie served as Minister of Water Affairs from 1999 to 2004, and served as Minister of Intelligence services from 2004 to 2008.  His autobiography, Armed and Dangerous, is an excellent read on the struggle against apartheid as told from the vantage point of someone at the front-lines.  Do yourself a favour and find a copy.

But Ronnie’s struggles against apartheid and racism did not end with the fall of apartheid. He then moved on to advocate on behalf of another cause dear to his heart: the Palestinian struggle against Zionism.  In 2000, after the Intifada started, Kasrils led a commission of South African parliamentarians on a visit to Palestine. Upon his return, Kasrils spoke of their findings in the parliament wearing a Palestinian keffiyyah, drawing a clear analogy between South African apartheid and Israeli Zionism, and stating that the only acceptable position for those who fought apartheid is to support Palestinians’ struggle.

He continues his struggles against Israeli apartheid to this day, most recently writing about Judge Goldstone’s report on Israeli war crimes in Gaza, and recently drawing analogies on how fighting South African apartheid through Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions offers the best model for fighting Israeli apartheid, concluding:

Just as a united, national movement of a determined people, reinforced by international solidarity actions embracing the peaceful weapons of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) – including many academic initiatives – won freedom for all South Africans, so too can this be the case in the Holy Land.

Amen, broo!

Chris, Ronnie, Andy and a couple of friends and I had lunch in a wonderful Joburg restaurant named The Attic. The food was great and I got my first taste of the famed Pinotage red wine of this blessed land.

Me with Ronnie, Chris and Andy Kasrils

We then went to the fanpark that FIFA had set up in Newtown in Joburg and watched England vs. Germany.  It was a fun experience, the fans were lively and happy, and the atmosphere was great.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether all the scare stories about this World Cup being held in Africa were about an altogether different country than this. 

After this, we took the train to Soccer City to watch Argentina vs. Mexico, and what a game it was.  The stadium looked glorious.  It is a true feat of architectural genius, and the atmosphere inside was electric.  As I mentioned earlier, the journey from and to the stadium was very pleasant, short and fun.

And I finally got to see the vuvuzelas in action.  Now, I’d gotten plenty of headache watching the World Cup on TV, but was willing to be open-minded about them.  At Chris’s insistence, I even tried blowing one of the things.  But when I got to the stadium my mind was made up: those evil spawns of the devil must be banned! They are an awful monstrosity. They sound like death getting raped.  But it isn’t the noise or loudness that is the worst thing about these horns, it is that they have subdued the wonderful football atmosphere of the games.

An integral part of every game and every major footballing occasion is the crowd.  They chant, sing, boo, react to the players and spur the players on. With the vuvuzela, all of that is lost.  All you can hear all throughout the game is the incessant droning sound of helicopters spraying pesticide.  Whatever happens on the pitch, the drone remains the same.  It gets louder at times, quiter at others, but the tone is itself.  All the singing, chanting, booing and cheering is drowned away.  This is a real pity.  I would have loved to hear the thousands of Mexicans and Argentines chant and sing throughout that exciting game.

This pining for fan atmosphere reminded me how important we Liverpool fans were in bringing Liverpool back from 3-0 down against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul.  Anyone who was there, including Liverpool and Milan players will tell you how great we fans were. Here’s Dutch legend Johan Cruyff:

“There’s not one club in Europe with an anthem like You’ll Never Walk Alone. There’s not one club in the world so united with the fans. I sat there watching the Liverpool fans and they sent shivers down my spine. A mass of 40,000 people became one force behind their team. That’s something not many teams have. For that I admire Liverpool more than anything.”

Argentine legend Diego Maradona, whose hand I was lucky to shake in Istanbul, had this to say:

“The English club proved that miracles really do exist. I’ve now made Liverpool my English team. They showed that football is the most beautiful sport of all. You knew they could defend but the team showed they could play too and wrote a page in the history books. The match will last forever. The Liverpool supporters didn’t let me go to sleep the night before. There were 10 of them to every three Milan supporters. They showed their unconditional support at half-time when they were losing 3-0 and still they didn’t stop singing.”

It is a pity that such moments will not recur in this World Cup, and we have them bloody vuvuzelas to thank!

That, however, remains the only blot on an otherwise perfect World Cup experience. The organization, fans, games, stadia, transport, accommodation and atmosphere have all been great.  Well done South Africa!

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Arrived in South Africa

The blogging here has been very spotty recently, but I’m hoping to pick it up. Don’t tune out just yet!

I arrived in South Africa on Sunday, June 27, and have already watched two games: Argentina-Mexico and Holland-Slovakia.  I will be now writing in more detail, but the first thing I must share is how wonderful the experience has been so far. 

South Africa is a wonderfully beautiful country, beyond anything you’d expect.  The people are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet, and the organization of the World Cup has been truly excellent.

In 2006, I had a 36-hour layover in Germany which I used to watch the England-Portugal game in the quarter-final.  When comparing the two experiences, it is unbelievable how much better organized things have been in South Africa.  This should be kept in mind especially in light of all the hysteria that preceeded the World Cup about how South Africans will not be able to organize the World Cup.

In Germany, getting from Gelsenkirchen to the AufSchalke Arena involved an hour-long ride in a very over-crowded bus that was stuck in the traffic in awful heat.  You then had to walk another half hour to get to the stadium.   The return to Gelsenkirchen was even worse, taking forever and getting stuck in awful traffic.  Getting from downtown Joburg to the stadium took 15 minutes in a train, riding with some very fun fans and making friends, followed by a five-minute walk.  In Durban, it took less than 5 minutes in a fast modern train, followed by a 5-minute walk. On the way back from the stadia, dedicated bus lanes have a constant stream of fast-moving buses that take you downtown in virtually no time.  There was hardly any traffic as tens of thousands of people flocked to and from a stadium.  Getting to and from the stadium is always an awful chore in major football tournaments, and yet the South Africans have managed to turn it into an easy and fun part of the experience.

The stadia themselves have been amazing.  Soccer City, with its 95,00 seats is one of the most awe-inspiring stadia you’ll ever find.  The atmosphere is electric. I’ve not seen a better atmosphere in a large stadium except in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana, and perhaps in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul.  Although that stadium really lacks spirit and warmth due to its very spread out design, that night it was turned into a cauldron of emotion by Liverpool fans (the greatest fan in the world, as Cruyff later described them.)

Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most beautiful stadia in the world.  It’s set against a backdrop of the wonderful greenery of Durban and the long beautiful sandy beaches, and fits in beautifully with the city, which is itself a gem.  It is also named after one of the leaders of the struggle against apartheid, who was chairman of the South African Communist Party in the days when it was at the forefront of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid.

Picking up the tickets here has gone smoothly.  In Germany, the organizers lost my ticket, and I had to run around the stadium for an hour and a half trying to get them to issue a replacement.  They eventually did, but I missed kick-off in the process, and found someone sitting in my seat.  The trains in South Africa have been running on time, the airports of Joburg and Durban were pleasant, well-organized and not crowded. In Germany I was stranded for three hours late at night in a small town’s train station in the godforsaken midsts of the Ruhr valley waiting for a train that seemed to never arrive.

I am not writing this to criticize German organization, or to say that it was incompetent.  My experience in Germany was clearly not typical–surely there were many who enjoyed their trip.  I am bringing this up to highlight how hard it is for everything to fall in place in such major events, and how impressive it is for South Africa to have managed to do all of this so seamlessly.

The Fanzone where FIFA were showing the England game was also very nice and well-organized. After the games, there is a wonderful atmosphere in the bars and streets of the towns.  Fans get together to watch games, party, drink and make friends.  

But the most wonderful thing about this country is the people here, and the wonderful World Cup atmosphere one finds everywhere.  In my two days here, I’ve made dozens of friends from all over the world.  The South Africans have been very helpful, welcoming and generous.  Everywhere I go I get offered rides and help in every way imaginable.  I feel flattered and honored to just be here.  What a truly amazing people.

All in all, this has been a great trip so far.  If you’re not here, you’re missing out on a lot.  And if you’re going to take my word on one thing, it is this: Visit South Africa. You will be amazed!

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