The Beautiful Game Part I

June 28, 2009

Sports is a national obsession in South Africa. Fans discuss, argue and fret over rugby, cricket, soccer, hockey (the field version), netball, running, tennis, golf and the list goes on, but the first three hold the hearts of a majority of South Africans. Interestingly, the terms football and soccer are used interchangeably. Not surprisingly, even in the realm of sports, the passions and loyalties of South Africans are often divided along racial lines. Rugby and cricket are the “white sports” and soccer is the “black sport”. In speaking with many white folks, they were not even introduced to soccer during their childhood because white children played rugby and cricket in their schools growing up. Generally, only white children who grew up in a rural area on a farm where there were black workers learned soccer during apartheid. That of course has changed in the last fifteen years, but the strong fan support remains largely divided along racial lines.

It is with considerable national pride that 2010 will mark the year in which the FIFA World Cup will be held in South Africa—the first time that a World Cup has been held on the African continent. All of the major cities are busy building or renovating stadiums, improving infrastructure projects all over the country, linking the world with high speed internet, etc. The World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world, and South Africa wants to show that it is ready to put on a great show worthy of the name. Whether it will be without problems will remain to be seen. There are considerable issues related to transportation, crime, stadium security, ticketing, etc. that need to be addressed, but they have been given a chance to have a test run of the World Cup in the FIFA Confederations Cup which ran June 14th – June 28th.

The Confederations Cup is an event with a relatively recent history, and receives only modest attention from the soccer world. In it’s current format, there are eight participants-six coming from the champions of each region in the world plus the winner of the prior World Cup and the host nation. It is called the “Championship of Champions”. Others call it a marketing gimmick. But whatever the opinion of the worthiness of the Confederations Cup from the majority of the nations who could potentially participate, it has evolved into an event held every four years in the year prior to the World Cup and in the same country of the host country and is considered the second most prestigious FIFA-sponsored event. The idea is that the host country can use the Confed Cup as an opportunity to work out the logistics of the World Cup on a much smaller scale and with less scrutiny. Thus, South Africa was the host of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. The champions participating this year were Brazil (South America), Egypt (Africa), Iraq (Asia), New Zealand (Oceania), Spain (Europe), the USA (North / Central America), Italy (2006 World Cup champ), and South Africa (host nation).

I grew up playing soccer from the age of eight. I started on the Beekman Arms U-10 soccer team coached by Frank Luzzi. I was fortunate to have had a coach who actually understood the game as many American kids who played soccer in the late 1970s would have been coached by well intentioned, but definitely ill-informed parents. Mr. Luzzi was right off the boat—the real Italian deal. He understood the game and did not care much for laziness. One of my most memorable moments as a member of the Beekman Arms side was a long range goal scored from mid-field in a game. Since I played defense, I can count on two hands the total number of goals that I scored in my entire soccer career. This one started innocently enough—a volley from the center arc that was intended mostly as a clear out of our area. The ball took a high bounce inside of the 18 yard line. The keeper came out to catch the ball, and then at the last minute decided to catch it after the bounce. As 9 year olds are wont to do, he underestimated the bounce which sailed over his head and into the goal. At that point I was christened “Bigfoot” for my half-field volley—a name which actually stuck for a good part of the next decade.

Unlike many American kids who lose interest in soccer sometime before the age of 14, I continued to play in high school eventually becoming the co-captain of our league champion team, played through college intramurals, and in a competitive adult league in Chapel Hill. My soccer career ended abruptly when I broke a rib playing in an adult league in Virginia several years ago, but suffice to say I have been a player and a student of the game for the better part of my life. I seldom watch soccer on TV, but that is mainly because I am too cheap to get cable and not due to disinterest. That said, I have only been to one professional soccer game in my life—and I am not sure if you can even count a New York Cosmos indoor game in 1984. There could not have been more than 500 fans at the game. The most entertaining memory from that trip was the Greek diner in Mahwah, New Jersey in which Frank Luzzi was ordering a “cheeseburga, aah French afries and a choka shake” to a Greek waiter who could not understand Italian-inspired English. The order took about five iterations each getting louder than the one before. When the waiter left, there were a few Italian words uttered under Frank’s breath. He then shook his head said, “what isa wrong with thata dumb guy. Whya can’t he understanda English?” He did have a point.

When I head that the FIFA Confederations Cup was being held in South Africa this year, I wanted to see if we could get some tickets…it would be a good father/child bonding experience. The only problem is that the games are hours from Pietermaritzburg. The four venues were Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontain and Rustenburg. Bloemfontain is the closest at five hours and Rustenburg is the farthest at seven. The pairings put he US in the proverbial “Group of Death”—Group B along with Brazil, Italy and Egypt collectively ranked 5, 4 and 40 respectively according to FIFA, while Group A had Spain (#1), South Africa (#72), Iraq (#77) and New Zealand (#82). Top two teams advance from each group into the knock out stage. Thus the US had to play three top 40 teams with any hopes to advance. Games against Italy and Brazil were in Pretoria and Egypt was in Rustenburg. We went for the 8:30 game in Rustenburg because Paul had friends who lived there and thus a place to stay. So the date was set, 21 June (Father’s Day) in Rustenburg with the two eldest children and fathers of the Augustine’s and Passaro’s, Jeremiah von Kuhn, and the UNC interns—Robert, Elizabeth and Andrea—ten American’s on a mission with flags waving and faces painted.confed cup game day

Heading into the game, our thoughts were united…I hope we at least put on a respectable show. USA had already lost 1 – 3 to Italy and 0 – 3 to Brazil. The Italy game was closer than the score suggested, but the Brazil game was worse. Sitting 0-2-0 with a -5 goal differential is not what one would draw up in the strategy for advancing in the Confed Cup preliminary program. Egypt was 1-1-0 having shocked Italy two days earlier and Brazil was 2-0-0 and playing Italy who was also 1-1-0. So the stage was set, the USA needed to win, Italy needed to lose, and the US had to make up the 5 goal differential.

We heard a lot of commentary before leaving. “Why are you driving fourteen hours to see the US lose?” was the most common theme. To be honest, there was not a great reason except that there is a major international competition in South Africa, and the USA is in it, so we should go. Little did we know what was to happen next.

We discovered that while Egypt is on the completely opposite side of the continent and has almost nothing in common with South Africa, South African fans were rooting for Egypt to carry the mantle for Africa. We arrived in a largely empty stadium, faces painted, waving American flags to be struck with the overwhelming support for Egypt and the nearly nonexistent support for the USA. By gametime (and later when the officials opened the gates allowing people to stream into the stadium to get a better appearing attendance), there could not have been more than 50 Americans in the stands, and there could not have been more than 1000 total fans cheering for the USA out of an announced attendance of 23,000. We counted no more than five or six American flags in the entire stadium, so we decided to strategically drape our flag over the balcony of the second level with us sitting right behind the flag.

First Half: Vuvuzelas blowing incessantly. When in Rome, so we were blasting our vuvuzelas as best we could and cheering U-S-A, U-S-A at every opportunity. The US side came out pressing and had several early opportunities that they were unable to capitalize on. This looked promising although opportunities do not come often in international football—one needs to finish when the opportunity arises. Then in the 21st minute the US found the back of the net on a broken play between the Egyptian keeper, his defenseman and Charlie Davies. The goal was on the other side of the stadium, so it was hard to tell what happened, but we were leading 1-0. The goal seemed to awaken Egypt who were challenging throughout the remainder of the first half, but the half time score remained 1-0.

After the break, the US came out pressing and had a sure goal stopped by a handball that was not called in the 50th minute. The tension built in the stadium as the vuvuzelas got louder and louder and each possession seemed to carry extra weight. The Italians were losing 0-3 at halftime, so the US needed to score at least three goals and the Egyptians only needed to hold the US to two goals in order to advance. The US midfielder Michael Bradley scored a brilliant goal in the 63rd minute. The US finished the scoring in the 71st minute with a diving header by Clint Dempsey into the back of the net. It was shortly after this point that we realized that the US might be able to advance through a series of SMS messages that we were receiving. Then we started the “D-fense”, “D-fense” cheer for the last ten minutes.

Our fifteen seconds of fame occurred when we were the featured fans by the panning camera looking for the few American fans. We got emails from friends watching on ESPN2 and we were the high-fiving Americans featured on the SABC sports highlights on Monday morning. At that point, we were starting our seven hour drive back from Rustenburg.

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