Today in the Sunday Times of Johannesburg there’s an advertisement displaying the beautiful South African flag taking up the whole page. Over it is written, “Today This is the Greatest Country in the World.” South Africa has done a remarkable job of hosting the Cup. The games have been organized and run with almost flawless execution and the people of the country have been extraordinarily open and gracious. Hosting the Cup has meant a great deal to South Africans both because it has brought them center stage in the world and because there a great deal of love for football here in this country. Hours away from the game the atmosphere in Johannesburg is electric. Some thoughts on what the atmosphere for the finals may be like and some pictures below.
Coming back to my hotel in Johannesburg last night I found the street completely jammed with traffic. I got out of the taxi at the corner a few blocks away and started walking. As I got closer I heard a series of shrieks and cheers running down the block, growing louder and louder. When I got close to where I was staying I saw a crowd bulging into the street. It turns out that the Spanish National Team had checked into the hotel directly across the street from where I was staying and were exiting the hotel to get on their team bus. Needless to say I joined the throngs of people crowded around the outside of their hotel and tried to get some photos.
There’s a great deal of admiration and respect for the Spanish National Team in South Africa. I was in Cape Town for the Netherlands-Uruguay semis and the following night I watched the Spain-Germany match on the big screen set up in front of the City Hall there. Because the Netherlands-Uruguay semi was the final match played in the Cape Town, many of the visitors had left earlier that day for Durban for the second semi. Many of the people watching the Spain-Germany at the Cape Town Fanfest were in turn locals and it gave the event a very different feel from when I’d watched the Brazil-Netherlands and Ghana-Uruguay matches in Cape Town before. There are many people of German ancestry in South Africa, but despite that most of the crowd assembled was rooting for Spain. Part of this may have been due to the fact that many people Cape Town locals had also gone to Durban to watch Germany. But at it’s heart, people here seem drawn to Spain because of the way they play the beautiful game. Spain isn’t a team that people here know and have followed like they have with say with Brazil or Argentina. Despite that, Spain’s style of play has won them a number of supporters in South Africa.
This may be particularly relevant for today’s Finals because it seems as if Spain itself has travelled relatively few supporters to this World Cup. The ones here are of course passionate, but compared to other European countries, Brazil and even Argentina there seem to have been fewer visitors from Spain. This is an anecdotal observation as I don’t have data to back it up and it may be off, but several people I’ve met who have been here for the entire Cup have made note of this. I’d imagine that the economic situation in Spain has made it difficult for people to come. Also, huge numbers of Spaniards may turn out for the finals. That said, Spain’s level of support at Soccer City tonight could be a factor tonight, especially because of the who Spain is playing.
As I said, there’s significant admiration for Spain in South Africa. However, there is enormous support and passion for the Dutch and much of South Afica has turned Orange, particularly since the quarterfinals. At times it’s felt as if Amsterdam had temporarily moved to the South Africa for the month.
The Dutch travelled an enormous number of supporters to South Africa, particularly given the size of the country. Some reports suggest that over 500,000 people from the Netherlands have come to South Africa this month. If true that would mean that nearly 1 out of every 30 people in the Netherlands has come to the World Cup. Several communities in South Africa derive their roots and language from the Netherlands and as such still feel connected to the Netherlands avidly support the Dutch. Finally, as with Spanish team, people here in South Africa have appreciated the Dutch style of play over the years.
Spain vs. the Netherlands has generated tremendous excitement here in South Africa. Both teams are widely admired for their style of play. But the support for the Dutch is particularly passionate and that may factor in tonight. But overall, the atmosphere at the stadium tonight is going to be very special. South Africa has executed the Cup wonderfully and this evening will be the culmination of those efforts. The big question still unsettled here is whether or not Nelson Mandela will attend the match. Given the tragic death of his grand daughter earlier this month, people would of course more than understand him not making it. However, were he to attend it would make the event that much more fitting and people around the country are hoping he’ll be able to make it. If he does watch for a jolt of energy to surge through the stadium.