Text by Korena di Roma, reporting from South Africa; Photograph by
You start to hear the vuvuzelas as soon as you step off the plane. When we arrived in Johannesburg from Nairobi the day of the World Cup opening match, the atmosphere at the airport had transformed from when we had left it a week earlier. In the arrivals area, Bafana Bafana supporters and groups of Mexico fans in sombreros were united in their love of the vuvuzela hours before the two teams were scheduled to open the games.
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We rented a car to drive to Soccer City and were able to park within walking distance of the stadium. Traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as we had expected, and nearly every car had its windows cracked just enough to accommodate a South African flag or the noisy end of a vuvu, so that the drive was at times exhilarating. The crowd outside the stadium was decked out in all things Bafana Bafana, and we were able to pick up earplugs from the vendors lining the streets and selling everything from jerseys to—you guessed it—vuvuzelas.
Once inside the stadium, though, food and merchandise sales are controlled by FIFA-authorized vendors, so be prepared for prices to go up and choices to be limited once there. About 20 minutes into the game, the only food available—at least around our section—were curiously large bags of plain potato chips.
Security was tight, with groups of police officers stationed outside the stadium, but they didn’t seem necessary in the end. Even with nearly 85,000 people there to watch, the only other annoyance besides the lack of food were the nearly 85,000 vuvuzelas. Then again, I could be bitter because I turned out to be so inept with mine that people in neighboring seats were snapping photos of my apparently humorous attempts to make even the smallest sound. This was my first live soccer match, and the friendly, sociable crowd made me wonder about all the fuss regarding unruliness and hooliganism—including one person’s assurance before I left that I would be stampeded.
Cue the USA vs. England match, though it still turned out to be milder than my expectations (after South Africa, the U.S. and England topped ticket sales to the Cup). We started out at an English pub outside Pretoria that had declared itself a vuvuzela-free zone, but England fans clearly didn’t need them to get charged up. Team USA supporters were outnumbered at the pub, and this carried over to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg. We had to sweep aside the Three Lions’ oversize red-and-white flags to get to our seats, and once there we saw only one other American in our section. There were far fewer vuvuzelas and only about half the crowd of Soccer City, but it was much rowdier, especially after England scored a goal within the first five minutes.
Then Clint Dempsey scored for the U.S. near the end of the first half, and I stopped cheering long enough to notice that England’s fans looked a bit more subdued, sitting very stiffly in their seats and facing straight ahead. Our friends in another section told us they witnessed several fights break out between the two sides but that at least one of them ended with hugs. That was nice to know, especially when English fans with bleeding cuts on their faces stepped onto the van we had managed to hail after the match, at which point we were a little grateful that they’d run out of beer fairly early, another case of the stadium seeming ill-prepared for the crowd—or maybe it was intentional. It probably would have gotten even more interesting if England had won.
Back to the aforementioned van: There was no clear indication of which bus to take back to where we had parked our cars, and hundreds of fans just started walking in the general direction of the lot. In the confusion, buses and vans were passing us half empty, but they didn’t stop until they were on their way back, at which point cold, tired crowds would overwhelm the doors trying to get a seat.
When we finally made it to the car, it took about two hours just to clear the parking lot and we spent another couple of hours inching forward in the single lane of traffic leading out of Rustenburg. The stadium isn’t accustomed to hosting such a capacity, and neither are the roads. But being there to see Team USA score that goal against England made it very much worth the wait.
1. When entering the stadium, our tickets were checked but we were never asked for ID, so even though FIFA was stringent about listing guests and their passport numbers in the lottery, anyone can use the tickets as long as the original applicant picks them up in person
2. Which means there was plenty of scalping, although the going rate for a ticket before the USA vs. England match was a reasonable 1,000 South African Rand (about $130)
3. Bags are also checked at stadium entrances for forbidden items and food and drinks; I had to throw out my bottle of water, so it was fortunate the stadium didn’t run out
4. Visa is the official card of the World Cup, but during the first half of the opening match, the machines broke down, so bring plenty of cash
5. A friend’s wife had thought to pack some sandwiches in a cooler for the car, and this foresight turned out to be a lifesaver—if you’re driving and can store food, it’s good to have in case of heavy traffic and even crowds at rest stops and fast food spots immediately outside the stadiums
6. It’s coming on winter in South Africa so check the forecast before you pack; I was cold in the stadium and probably should have worn something heavier, but vendors were selling blankets, scarves, and hats, which you may find you need when the sun goes down