Sitting in the stands last night, waiting for the Argentina-Mexico game to start, I texted a South African friend about England’s loss to Germany earlier in the day. “We were robbed”, I wrote. Her reply reminded me that “In SA, that phrase is ambiguous”.
Actually, one of the things that most visitors to this World Cup agree about is that South Africa feels a lot less scary than they expected. I have been here four days now, and I haven’t been murdered once.
The general advice is that you will be fine, “provided you are sensible.” But that is not always possible. Soccer City, where last night’s game took place, is in the middle of a patch of wasteland, surrounded by motorways – so it’s not the easiest place to get to. We parked half an hour way and walked to the stadium, at night, along the mud verge of a barely-lit motorway on the outskirts of Soweto. Is that sensible? I don’t know – but we were fine.
The stadium itself is spectacular. In the darkness, it is lit up by an orange glow. Outside, I passed one stall selling vuvuzelas in team colours; and another selling ear plugs to counter the vuvuzelas. Inside, I had wonderful seats, just above the Argentine bench, with a perfect view of the strange and boisterous antics of their coach, Diego Maradona. Strangely enough, I had seen Argentina and Mexico play each other at precisely the same last-16 stage of the World Cup, four years ago, in Leipzig. Last night’s game was not as close as the one in Germany The Argentinians won fairly easily, aided by the usual dodgy refereeing decisions and the genius of Lionel Messi. Messi has yet to score in this tournament, but I still have a feeling that this will be his World Cup.
The truth is that you have a much better idea of what is going on, watching the game on television than live in the stadium. We only knew that the first Argentine goal was offside because it was replayed on the big screens in the stadium, provoking a near riot on the Mexican bench.
What you do gain from being inside is the noise and the excitement, the sense of occasion and a much better sense of the speed and physicality of the game. You can also focus in on individual players: the crazed energy of Argentina’s Carlos Tevez for example, or the sulky charisma of Portugal’s Ronaldo, forever berating his colleagues for their ineptitude.
The Brazil-Portugal game that I went to on Friday (I think it was Friday, I’m losing track) was a dull match, largely because both teams were willing to play out for a draw. But the crowd noise doubled, as soon as Ronaldo got near the ball. It was the same with Messi last night. What those two players have is the willingness, speed and skill to dribble past other players. Strange, that it is so rare – but it gets the crowds going like nothing else.
And what of England. I watched them on television, shortly before setting out for Soccer City. The press reaction in Britain to our 4-1 defeat seems to be fairly savage. And clearly the team’s defence were inept and slow. But the fact is that if Lampard’s goal had been awarded, as it should have been, it would have been 2-2 and the momentum would have been with England. The team would also have felt less of a need to pour forward – and so would have been less likely to be exposed at the back by the pace of the Germans. It could all have been very different. But it wasn’t. And part of me is relieved that England’s slow back-line will now not be exposed to the speed and inventiveness of Messi, Tevez and Higuain. I look forward to seeing Argentina take Germany apart – without the help of the referee.