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.
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.
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.”
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.”