Notes from South Africa 2010: Outside US-England

Editor’s note: Pitch Invasion weekly columnist Andrew Guest is in South Africa, and sends a first-hand report on his experience as an American at the U.S.-England game.

There is something jarring about being in semi-rural Southern Africa and finding yourself surrounded by drunk Englishmen with doughy faces and nerd-chic glasses framed by the fake chainmail armor of a medieval knight.  Around the US-England game Saturday there were many similarly jarring scenes, but on both sides they all seemed embodied in that: bizarre claims on national identities oblivious to little beyond the stony hands of Robert Green.

I have my opinions about what happened on the field at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium between the US and England, but on that too much has already been said.  Instead, my particular take is that of a lone fan following the throngs by mini-bus from the big city to Rustenburg—or really a small suburb outside of Rustenburg.  We descended like a thirsty, good-natured hive of locusts onto the dusty blocks around the stadium, a neighborhood that seemed to be on the poor side of working class without being destitute.

It was, I should re-emphasize, a mostly good-natured hive.  The thousands of English and American fans were often loud and obnoxious, but rarely mean-spirited.  But the transportation and the parking were a mess, so the throngs trampled about through the dirt yards and alleys and lives of the entrepreneurial locals selling parking spaces and bobbles.  Locals who all, no matter their social class, all seem to have been able to procure sparkling yellow Bafana Bafana jerseys that are selling for 499 Rand at the local sports shop (about $65).

Approaching the stadium the proportion of English to US fans didn’t seem overwhelming—certainly more with the St George’s Cross, but not dramatically more.  But upon entering the stadium we might as well have been at Wembley.  The English papered every square inch with their flags and their cadences, while we Americans could do little more than muster an occasional U-S-A or a “Goooooch.”  It was clear to me that while the US is getting there on the field, our fan culture still needs to develop some texture and style.  The numbers were there, the spirit was there, but like the sound of the vuvulzelas we US fans have a conspicuous absence of presence.

Warming up at the Royal Bafokeng

Warming up at the Royal Bafokeng

Perhaps our numbers were too busy trying to corral armfuls of plastic bottles of Budweiser (available virtually no where else in South Africa other than as an exclusive FIFA partner at the stadiums) from the overwhelmed concessions stands.  The stadium itself was perfectly serviceable, but also a bit out of its league.  There were, thankfully, enough bathrooms—but there was no functioning stadium clock or scoreboard, let alone any hopes of video replay.  I wonder the last time players like Steven Gerrard or Landon Donovan had to ask the referee how much time was left as though playing in a local pub league.

On the way out the feeling in the air was of resignation.  The English satirically singing “Rob-ert Green, Rob-ert Green,” the Americans happy with the point and unsure of how to find a ride back to the big city.  My own ride was a mini-bus with a few civil Brits and Yanks, until a slurring drunk US fan talked his way on for a ride to the Jo’burg airport.  He looked to be about 16, but loudly blathered to the English fans about how excited he was that the investment bank he worked for in New York was transferring him to London.  He insisted the Brits tell him about the neighborhood he was moving to in London, but when the patient Englishmen tried to explain they were from Leeds and didn’t know all the neighborhoods in London the young American banker was perplexed—Leeds?  Never heard of it.  Is that a city?  The Englishmen offered it was kind-of near Manchester.

I broke a little bit inside when the blathering banker went on to tell everyone that because he worked in Manhattan and took week-ends in the Hamptons he was from “the heart and soul of America.”  It was all I could do to try and have my own quiet conversation on side: why does Rooney like playing with Heskey anyway?  As the bus jerked and jabbed through the remaining mobs, amidst Uncle Sam top hats and three-lion makarapas, through the window I caught the sight of neighborhood boys half hiding behind trees and pillars.  Wide-eyed, totally silent, hypnotized by the scene; it may be, I’d guess, the most they will ever know first hand about England and America.

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