So, after what many people have been calling a slow and underwhelming start, the World Cup came alive last night when Uraguay pasted South Africa 3-0. The South African fans have been rightly celebrated. They are enthusiastic, noisy, seemingly fired up not just by national pride but an overarching love of football. It’s like the fictional Hollywood film Invictus has come true! Always fearful of stereotyping any race or nationality, even positively, I am happy to say that towards the end of last night’s match, some South African fans stopped being enthusiastic and noisy, and started being stroppy and pathetic, with a visible contingent actually walking out of the stadium in Pretoria before the 90 minutes were up. This was a pretty poor show, even if it was intended as a protest against the referee’s decision to send off keeper Itumeleng Khune, who had done a foul. I’m afraid it just looked like sour grapes because their beloved team were unable to fend off the relentless South American attack. When your team is down to ten men, that’s when you have to start making noise, not taking your ball home. (Listen to me: I am a seasoned, all-weather football fan. I know what I’m talking about.)
Still, even though the whole world wants the host nation to qualify – Gary Lineker said so, so it must be true – it’s more than possible that they won’t. Because I don’t follow football, I have no idea how good South Africa are. I only know that their fans are welcoming, noisy and colourful. Or most of them.
It seems vulgar to reduce a sport down to how many goals are scored, but not that many have thus far been scored, except by Germany, and now by Uruguay, whose most handsome player scored two. Must we judge a game by number of goals? I found the Brazil North Korea match more exciting than Germany Australia, even though less goal were scored, but then, maybe that’s because North Korea put up more of a fight than expected against the big boys, and the drama hinged on that narrative. Also, Maicon’s magical backwards goal was a sight to behold. No idea why the pundits were debating its brilliance so fervently after the final whistle – was it brilliant, was it a fluke? – it was an amazing thing to see happen, let’s just leave it at that. (Ha ha, talking of goals, I just remembered that you can futuristically find out scores of matches even when you are just sitting down at a laptop with a wi-fi connection, and I discover that Argentina have beaten South Korea 4-1 while I’ve been typing. Has the numerical tide turned?)
It’s satisfying to find out that North Korea’s suspiciously well synchronised fans were actually volunteers from China, and not lucky North Koreans who had been let out of the country on the understanding that they would come back. You can’t win with North Korea – if you lightly suggest it is a dangerous totalitarian personality-cult nuclear dictatorship with an appalling human rights record you’re as guilty of reductive political stereotyping as imagining England is full of men in bowler hats who are unable to talk about sex. It’s much more healthy to imagine that football really can break down political barriers and unite us all, even North and South Korea, but when a participating nation won’t allow its citizens to travel abroad to see it, that fantasy is harder to maintain. (The BBC had found two North Korea supporters who live in somewhere like Portsmouth and travelled out to Riyadh to see them play, where they were the only supporters. I hope they didn’t walk out before the end, although that would have been some protest.)
I like the idea that the drone of the vuvuzela has now been usurped by the drone of people complaining about the vuvuzela. I have, I know, added to that drone. But the fact is, you only really notice it when a match is sluggish. I didn’t notice it as much while watching Brazil North Korea or South Africa Uruguay.
I am enjoying getting to know the pundits. I think it’s amazing that Gareth Southgate has forged a respectable career for himself on ITV after being England’s penalty donkey at Euro ’96 (which I watched, because it is an international tournament). Just shows how strategic a self-mocking Pizza Hut advert can be. Also, he was the first pundit I heard use the phrase, “You can’t legislate for that” after Robert Green’s fumble near a jungle, which I thought was rather eloquent. It turns out this is being said by lots of commentators and pundits. I feel proud for spotting it last.
I have engineered an afternoon off tomorrow to watch the England game at home. Next Wednesday’s I will be obliged to watch on the big office telly at the Radio Times, with the sound off. This can’t be avoided, as the TV schedules close at 3.30 on a Wednesday afternoon so that’s when I have to turn around my film copy. So I will be there, working, like all the other hardworking people at Radio Times, but also watching England play against Slovenia. I can’t lie: I’m enjoying the change in lifestyle that a World Cup engenders. And I trust the England fans won’t walk out early if the team don’t beat Algeria in Cape Town tomorrow.
I hope the guffawing Archbishop Desmond Tutu doesn’t stop coming to the matches if Bafana Bafana (“the boys, the boys!”) go out against France on Tuesday. I like him. Give him a Nobel peace prize.