They called the train a ‘soccer express’ since it went straight from Pretoria Central Station to Nasrec—the new station directly outside Johannesburg’s World Cup stadium jewel of Soccer City. But as the train stopped, started, and slowed to go about 50 kilometers in two hours along the roundabout route it didn’t feel like much of an express. Instead it felt like a caterpillar slowly spinning its cocoon, crawling with dark shaded windows past suburbs, townships, scrub brush, and huddled masses.
When the train stopped at a few smaller stations along the way, neon-vested guards jumped up to watch the doors and make sure no one without game tickets came aboard. So inside was a comfortable group of relatively affluent fans, a mix of visitors and locals chatting in packs of two or four. Outside was what I can only assume to be the usual daily crush of poor commuters—the unlucky portion of South Africans who can’t afford either the luxurious mobility of a personal car, nor tickets for a World Cup game.
After several hours Soccer City appeared suddenly, a distant calabash in an artificial looking valley between grubby hills, trees, and factories. It was visually stunning. The burnt shades of orange and the geometry of the thing, well-known to any World Cup TV viewer, glistened in mid-day sun. Everyone on the train rushed to the windows with cameras in hand and a palpable sense of awe.
But the odd isolation, near desolation, of the surrounds made me feel a bit uncertain. Later, as I paged through the week’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, an essay by Mark Gevisser (identified as “writer-in-residence” at the University of Pretoria) made more sense:
“There is terrible poignancy in the fact that the state could never earn as much good feeling per rand spent, say, on housing, as it will out of the money spent on the World Cup stadiums.
Franz Fanon wrote brilliantly about this impulse in independent Africa, warning that one of the ‘pitfalls of national consciousness’ is that, ‘instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilisation of the people, it will be…only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of might have been.’
Fanon saw the neocolonial phenomenon of the national stadium as one of the primary examples of this and, visiting Soccer City a few weeks before the World Cup was to open, I could not help but hear his words reverberate around the magnificent place, even as I was awestruck – and even ‘proud’ of it – myself.
What is so striking about Soccer City is that – unlike Ellis Park of the FNB Stadium which it replaces – you are entirely enclosed within the perfectly cambered calabash once you are inside; there are no vistas of the city or the world outside. This may well be a function of international design trends – the bird’s nest factor – rather than ideology, but the effect is intense all the same; at a time when it seems increasingly difficult to hold the Rainbow Nation together, the ‘African calabash’ seems to provide South Africans with the fantasy of containment within a single shared national identity.”
However artificial, watching a game at Soccer City is – perhaps like all great sports events – a wonderful fantasy. I was there to watch Holland v Denmark, and the waving orange contours of the seats complimented the bright attire of the Dutch fans beautifully. The green of the grass, the blue of the sky, the buzz of the stadium was enthralling. Out in the sheltered concourses, beneath the ‘perfectly cambered calabash,’ there was a light and spacious feeling that fit the energy of the game. The Dutch, the Danes, the South Africans, and the rest of us mingled courteously but at a distance from each other—just happy to be there in our own slow spun cocoon.