The Ukhamba (calabash in Zulu) at Soccer City. The center of attention for 3 billion people — half of humankind — on Sunday. A magnificent temple of football. A massive 95,000 seats and yet so intimate, near-perfect sight lines. What a stage for Netherlands-Spain! Click here to read the New York Times on who South Africans are supporting.
Spain are World Champions! Iniesta scores in the 116th minute to give La Roja a 1-0 victory over the Dutch at Soccer City.
Click here to read The New York Times match report, with a few words from yours truly.
Click here to read Johan Cruyff lambasting the anti-football of the Dutch and the refereeing of Howard Webb.
South African fans have jumped on and off so many bandwagons since Bafana Bafana’s phyrric victory against France that I’ve lost count — BaGhana, Brazil . . . Spain. ‘We also speak Spanish,’ South Africans seemed to be saying in unison on Wednesday night at Durban’s Mabhida Stadium.
I arrived at Mabhida around lunchtime for my interview with France24 — the French satellite news channel. Next to me, young men from various French and German channels recorded their match previews. Seven hours ’til kickoff. As I walked across the train tracks and over the bridge that separates King’s Park Rugby Stadium from Mabhida Stadium there were far more police officers than football fans.
A friend and I ate lunch at the nearby casino right on the beach. By mid-afternoon we could finally imbibe in World Cup atmosphere, with the usual parade of replica jerseys, flags, funny hats, and photo ops. A group of masked Spaniards entertained us at a beachside party.
Coach Milton Dlamini and I boarded a kombi taxi to go check on his car in a parking lot 10 minutes away. The young driver blasted local hip hop while negotiating the swelling waves of cars, buses, and kombis moving slowly towards the stadium. Once we ascertained that everything was cool with the car, the taxi driver took us back. As we approached the ground, Milton enthused about The Arch.
Once inside, we met our mates from the local football coaching world (thanks Thabo!). Spain and Germany warmed up sparking esoteric discussions about tactics and the pros and cons of static vs dynamic stretching. Lineups are announced: Pedro instead of Torres and Trochowski taking suspended Mueller’s place.
Immediately it became obvious that Germany would spend the match in hiding. Spain patiently kept the ball and made sure not to give the conservative Germans any chance to launch counterattacks, the kind that devastated England and Argentina. The best chance of the half fell to Puyol whose header off a corner narrowly missed the target.
Spain came out in the second half meaning business. Xavi continued to dictate the tempo and direction of play in the midfield, while the Germans struggled to string together more than three passes. The noose tightened. Pressure on Germany’s goal mounted, with three consecutive chances for Xabi Alonso (twice) and Villa. When Podolski prevented Sergio Ramos from scoring it seemed to symbolically capture the match: a defender denied by a forward!
Eventually it happened. Puyol rose high and clear to head home a Xavi corner. Gooooooooool!!! Pedro could have closed the game with a one-on-one breakaway but somehow managed to fumble over the ball and neither shoot nor pass (to Torres). He looked disconsolate when the coach pulled him a minute later. But when the final whistle blew every Spanish player celebrated wildly on the pitch: La Furia Roja made it to their first World Cup final. Fiesta time! South Africa 2010 will produce a first-time winner: Spain or, less likely, The Netherlands.
Tonight I return to Mabhida Stadium for what might become one of the greatest World Cup matches of all time: Spain v Germany. The winner to face The Netherlands in the final on Sunday at The Ukhamba (calabash in isiZulu). Today’s rematch of the Euro 2008 final (hence the photo) is the biggest thing to hit Durban since Nelson Mandela cast his first vote in a free and democratic election here in 1994.
Spain is the side many fans and pundits (including me) picked to win the 2010 World Cup. At its best, La Furia Roja plays delectable futbol romantico that is not only pleasing to the eye but also supremely effective.
Germany is the highest scoring and top performing team in this World Cup. But do the memorable thrashings of England (4-1) and Argentina (4-0) mean that the Nationalmannschaft has peaked too early? That German octopus thinks so.
Spain’s gift to the world is fútbol romantico.
We got that tonight, as Spain got back on track with a 2-0 win over Honduras at Ellis Park. 54,000 came to enjoy Xavi’s midfield orchestration, David Villa’s glossy finishing, and the choral play of the Spanish side. It could have been 4- or 5- nil but Torres missed easy chances and Villa blew a penalty (and a chance for a hat trick).
But the story for us was getting to the game. I had an interview scheduled for 3p.m. at Radio 702 in Sandton. An enjoyable hour in the studio with the host, Jenny Crwys-Williams, who had Wimbledon and Portugal tearing North Korea to shreds on separate screens as we talked about my new books, Laduma! (2010 edition) and African Soccerscapes. (Click here to listen to the interview.)
At 4pm Ignazio and I went to the Sandton City mall to buy our park-and-ride tickets for tonight and later in the week. The mall is a massive, glitzy babylon of shopping. Alienating in the extreme, it could be anywhere in the USA or Western Europe. But it is the new economic center of Johannesburg.
Clock was ticking. Finally at 5pm we have our park-and-ride tickets and head out into crazy rush hour traffic. The Spain team is getting on the bus at the hotel across the street! Nice. The traffic is thick with mini-buses taking the working class back to the townships, as well as SUVs and an assortment of Benzes and Beemers heading to Gauteng’s gated communities. We are les than 5km from our flat and 45 minutes later we pick up the rest of the crew. Destination: the seat of South Africa’s Supreme Court: Constitution Hill—an ex-prison where Gandhi, Mandela and thousands of less famous freedom fighters and common criminals were once held.
We miss the turn for Con Hill. Agh! Suddenly, we are in a starkly different Johannesburg from where we were an hour earlier. Gone are the malls, the high rises, luxury apartments, and privatized heavily policed spaces. Hillbrow and Park Station are probably one of the most densely populated urban areas in Africa and perhaps the world. The rules of the road are suspended here. Igna is negotiating pedestrians everywhere while I try to read a map in the dark. Even the cops don’t know how to get out of here! But a good Samaritan bus driver at the wheel of a World Cup park-and-ride bus gives us directions. Ayoba! 10 minutes later we make our final approach to Con Hill, at the top of the ridge above Hillbrow. We know we’re close because the first Joburg police officer since Sandton is directing traffic. After almost burning out the clutch waiting in line to enter the multilevel parkade, we arrive. Kick off is more than hour away. We can relax.
Once on the bus, the kids joke about how many goals Spain will score on Honduras. I film the ride through Hillbrow and ‘interview’ Sophie who tells me it’s going to be 2-0 for Spain. Our child has a gift (and a smack after Torres). The crowd on the bus seems mostly South African, but we hear and talk with Americans, Costaricans (supporting Honduras) and Mexicans too. The bus drops us off in gritty New Doornfontein, where a long alley leads to Ellis Park—a beautiful stadium for football, not a bad seat in the house. As we approach the venue, Ignazio’s son Marco blares out his favourite South African phrase: ‘Ke nako!’
The Vatican has weighed in on Real Madrid’s nearly $300 million spending spree for three players (Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká and Karim Benzema). The Vatican’s newspaper, Osservatore Romano, said in an editorial that exorbitant transfer fees would bankrupt teams and could increase the influence of organized crime. “It is good to ask oneself whether the figures paid by Real Madrid’s president in a period of economic and financial crisis are justifiable from a purely economic viewpoint or whether they are inexplicable even under market laws,” the editorial said. “It is also necessary to see whether they are compatible with, or destabilizing for, the soccer world.
Predicting the result of the semi-final of the Confederations Cup between the United States and Spain–which the US won 2-0–Goal.com associate editor, Shave Evans, also made a promise:
“The U.S. and Spain are set to battle, but for my money, I don’t think it’s going to be much of a competition. Spain is superior on all parts of the pitch and will take the game to Bob Bradley’s man quickly. I can see a small settling in period, but I believe after about 20 minutes or so, the Spanish midfield will take over and make life very hard for the U.S. Because of this, I could see the score ballooning to 2-0 before halftime with a final score or 3-0. If the USA wins, I’ll take up ballet lessons.”