As reviled as the vuvuzela may be in the rest of the world, for journalists here in South Africa, these maligned instruments are often a handy herald of events just happened.
We were at Pretoria’s Eersterust Stadium today watching the U.S. team’s final training before its Wednesday clash against Algeria when the area surrounding the stadium was enveloped in the loud, excited groan of vuvuzelas.
A fast-typing, Blackberry-equipped reporter barked out the news: “South Africa scored! ‘Bafana Bafana’ 1, France 0.”
Rushing out of the stadium to find a place to watch the game and soak up the atmosphere of South Africa’s do-or-die match against France, vuvuzelas and car horns erupted again as our driver yelled out jubilantly, “Bafana Bafana 2, France 0, the impossible is happening!”
At a nearby restaurant awash in fans dressed in yellow jerseys and South African flags, we watched on edge of seat as South Africa battled to the brink of qualification for a slot in the “Round of 16” – a feat every World Cup hosting nation has accomplished in the tournament’s 80-year history.
In the odd calculus that is World Cup Group standings, South Africa needed to defeat the 1998* World Cup champions, France, by at least three goals and have the other group game between Mexico and Uruguay not end in a draw in order to ensure safe passage to the next round.
The various mechanisms in motion led to an at times curious, albeit confusing, melange of sounds in the crowded bar as some fans kept a radio tuned to a station that was switching every five minutes between coverage of the South Africa and Mexico matches. Fans intermittently cheered every South African strike on goal, booed each perceived French foul not called and willed both Mexico and Uruguay to score first, which Uruguay finally obliged to the relief of 48 million South Africans in the 43rd minute.
South Africa’s hopes took a hit when the French found the net in the 70th minute and were finally dashed when the final whistle blew, the nation's team two goals shy of the magic number needed for advancement. A mixture of polite applause and glum looks filled the dining room floor as fans took stock of how Bafana Bafana had failed and succeeded:
Though eliminated from the tournament, “The Boys” had also come up with their first victory ever against a once-dominant soccer nation like France.
Unpredictability name of the game
It is a fate that many other traditional soccer powerhouses now fear as the final days of group play begin. Like France, both defending champion Italy and traditional powerhouse England find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to win their last group game to proceed to the next round.
In particular, England, wrought with controversy and outright mutiny, faces a similar fate met by the French on tomorrow night in their critical final match against Slovenia, as once loyal fans turn on them and the excuses increasingly get more ridiculous.
It is the curious state of affairs in this World Cup that has created a feeling of uncertainty for soccer fans not seen in sometime.
Prior to today’s start of the final matches of group play, it was noted that of the eight teams on the top of their respective groups, half of them could conceivably not be one of the top two teams in their pool and thus eliminated from the tournament.
Meanwhile, a gritty U.S. squad will find itself looking up and to its side in the standings tomorrow afternoon when it faces Algeria in another make-or-break match. Like the English, the Americans need to beat a winless, but plucky Algerian team to ensure its place in the second round.
In an interview with NBC News yesterday, star striker Landon Donovan spoke about the mood of the team in the lead-up to the big match, saying, “The team is happy and relaxed. I think everybody is excited for Wednesday night.”
“We feel like we can still play better, which is good to know, and we have one game to advance in a World Cup and that’s really special.”
*This post originally had France as the 2002 World Cup winner, they won in 1998.