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Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Life & Times of Louis & Amber - The "Once-in-a-lifetime" Game

Being as we are in South Africa, and being as the World Cup only happens once every 4 years, and being as there is a stadium less than 2 hours from our house, we determined that it would be regrettable if we didn’t partake in the national festivities.  There were 5 games hosted in the Free State Stadium, 4 during Round One, and 1 during Round Two.  Round One is pool play, during which 4 teams in a pool play round-robin style, with the top two teams in each pool advancing to Round Two.  There are 32 teams in the World Cup, making for 24 Round One games in total in stadiums across South Africa.

Round Two and beyond is much more exciting because every game is an elimination game, where the loser goes home for the next 4 years.  The Round Two game hosted in Bloemfontein was to be the winner of Pool D vs. the second-place team from Pool C.  The United States team was in Pool C, and since England was also in their pool, odds pointed to the US placing 2nd in their pool and playing a game only an hour and a half from us.

Unfortunately, the US was a bit too successful, placing 1st overall in their pool and pushing England to the Free State.  Germany succeeded in winning their pool, setting up a rematch of World War II.  And before you think that I’m exaggerating, I actually stole that quote from the TV commentators.  In fact, when we were in Bloemfontein for the game, there were both England fans and German fans milling about everywhere.  The bars were packed, both sides were trying to drown out the other with their traditional football drinking songs, and generally trying to show more patriotism than the opposing team’s supporters.  The best show of support came from two middle-aged gentlemen.  They were walking around through the crowded streets carrying inflatable WWII Allied bomber planes above their heads – you know, just as a reminder.  And speaking of reminders, it felt a bit awkward, as an American, mingling with such overwhelming numbers of Brits and Krauts, until I remembered that we kicked them both around a bit in 2 different wars each (Revolutionary, 1812, WWI & WWII).  After that I started to hold my head a little bit higher.  God Bless America!

So, obviously you can tell that we purchased tickets to the Round Two game in Bloem, and last Sunday we made the trek south to attend the game.  Of course, living in Africa, taking in two competing European teams in the world’s most popular sport – everywhere except in the US, anyway – we needed a bit of a taste of home.  So we stopped for a pregame meal at McDonald’s.  Yes, they do have McD’s in Africa.  It seems Americans are also winning the international war against healthy eating.

While we were there we overheard a guy talking on the phone saying he sold his ticket for about $450.  Brian & I looked at each other and we were both thinking the same thing - $$$$$.  We briefly discussed scalping our tickets until, through continued eavesdropping, we learned that he was pulling the leg of whoever was on the other end of the phone.  I’m not sure if that person fell for it, but I sure did.

After a nutritious Mega Big Mac, fries, and a Coke, we made our way over to the stadium.  To get there we had to go along the river walk, then through the mall.  The streets and walkways were crowded to overflowing.  We overheard one guy say this was the first time he had seen bars in Bloemfontein open on a Sunday (Bloem is a very conservative Afrikaans city).  To get a seat at one of these bars you would have had to get there bright and early.  Citizens of the UK are famous for their pubs, and citizens of Germany for their steins and lagers.  Needless to say, the two groups could really put it away.  It looked like they figured the amount of alcohol they consumed would be a direct corollary to the outcome of the game.  Although I want to point out that the friendly competitions we observed appeared to be very good-natured.  Soccer fans are like Canadians – they are great to be around even though they are weird.

This whole scene was marred by vuvuzela’s  - those infernal horns that are a South African soccer tradition (you can see my earmuffs in some of the photos).  It was clear that foreigners were taking a liking to them as well.  In fact, I heard one sports writer relate to those things with the term Stockholm Syndrome – you know, when a kidnapping victim or hostage begins to sympathize with his captor.  Here is his quote "I like the World Cup, so the vuvuzela sound has become Pavlov's dinner bell for me. I hear them and think, "Cool, the World Cup's on!" By the way, you know something is historically annoying when you can compare it to a hostage sympathizing with his or her captors and the comparison actually works."  These things were everywhere and the fans from both teams seemed to relish the challenge of out-blowing the other team.

Eventually we made our way toward the security lines and into the stadium.  Just outside the stadium was a stage for a cell phone company.  They had various competitions and were handing out free prizes to the winners.  Of course, while standing and watching we were lured into a dancing competition where Brian and I both won World Cup game kits (face paint, a wet-wipe for removing face paint, and ear plugs…all neatly packaged in a nice camera case).  That’s right, Brian and I won prizes in a dancing competition, although for the record, it we were dancing independently of one another…and there were only like 12 other people at the stage at that time.  We only had to dance for like 3 seconds before he awarded us a prize.  Sorry, due to the brief duration of our dances, there are no accompanying photos or video. 

We finally made it into the stadium and spent the next hour just observing the fans of the various teams.  I’ve been to many professional and college sports games, and soccer fans are the greatest ever.  The atmosphere was electric.  Whenever you have two countries competing, especially when two of those countries have been historical enemies spanning the last several centuries, the stakes are artificially raised.  German fans were sporting their black, yellow, and red in their hair, t-shirts, flags, and in any other way you can imagine.  We saw several pairs of lederhosen, and some dirndls, to the point that one might have mistaken it for Oktoberfest.

The English fans were in fine form, displaying their patriotism by wrapping themselves in the English Flag, not the Union Jack, but St. George’s Cross.   We saw several suits of chain mail, and lots of very bad teeth – although I don’t think those were part of any costume.   Both groups of fans were singing all their traditional songs, chants, and cheers.

After watching all this meelee for quite some time we got to see the teams warm up.  This in itself was very cool, as you got to see just how talented these guys are with a ball – Wayne Rooney for England flipped the ball up a couple times with his foot, then kicked it up over his shoulder, caught it with his heel and flipped it back over his shoulder to keep juggling it without it once ever touching the ground.

Finally the two teams came out for introductions and their national anthems.  I’m no expert, but the two anthems were pretty typical of the cultures of their countries.  Germany’s is more or less saying “We are better than the whole world.”  England’s is saying, over and over again, “God save our queen.”  And people wonder why we left to start our own country?

Once the game started things went back and forth, until Germany finally took an advantage and scored.  Then they quickly scored again, silencing England’s fans.  Before half was called England had gotten one back.  England also scored a second goal that hit the top crossbar, bounced at least a yard inside the goal, then was grabbed by the German keeper.  The referee declared that it hadn’t crossed the line and play resumed.  That probably would have turned the tide a bit, but Germany capitalized on the break, proved themselves to be superior - at least on this day.  The final tally ended up Germany 4,  England 1.

Soccer is one sport that is waaaayyyy better to watch in person, because you can see the whole field and see openings that you just can’t catch on TV.  I think the collective energy of the fans also has something to do with it too.

At halftime my cousin Ben started feeling the ralphies coming on and went down to the little boys room.  After half an hour or so we started to worry a bit so I started looking for him.  I walked around for about 20 minutes and couldn’t find him.  While I did miss some of the game, it was actually pretty cool because I got to hear all the English fans cursing and leaving early and all the German fans arguing with the concession stands to keep serving beer past the time limit. In addition to expanding my vocabulary, I was able to stand in one of the tunnels right above field level and see the players close up, telling the security guy that I was looking for my sick cousin.  So that was pretty great.  Ben also took advantage of his minor illness to get a good seat right behind the goal for most of the second half.

As the game was drawing to a close some of the fans started to seem a bit roudy.  We actually left about 3 minutes early ourselves, not wanting to deal with tipsy drivers.  The upshot of it is, South Africa is doing an amazing job hosting the World Cup.  It is an experience that I will never forget and one that we are thankful we were able to participate in.  After all, how often does the world’s biggest sporting event land on your back doorstep?

For an interesting story about two South African friends of ours who went to a Bafana, Bafana game, click here.

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