Feel It: Reflections on South Africa 2010 and the Contradictions of Fandom

Though a round-about series of unplanned events, a few weeks ago I ended up watching South Africa play France in an immense and busy fan park in a dusty working class outskirt of Pretoria/Tshwane.  In the fan park, while stumbling around looking for an angle on one of the big-screens, a couple South African fans glommed onto my American friend and me with curiosity: other than some staff running the show, we seemed to be two of the few white people in the place and we obviously didn’t quite know what we were doing.  So, as always seemed to happen during World Cup 2010, the locals took it upon themselves to look out for us.

Settling into tepid beers and a winter’s warm dusk, it only took twenty minutes for South Africa to score.  The fan park erupted.  It was mass paroxysms of joy: leaping, dancing, hugging, and vuvuzelas of all shapes and sizes.  Then, with the game beginning again, our new friends turned to us and screamed in exclamation: “CAN YOU FEEL IT!  IT IS HERE!”

“Feel it!  It is here!”  With each word carefully enunciated, that catch-phrase was everywhere around South Africa 2010.  It was on TV, on the radio, in advertisements, on street banners, incorporated with concerts and stage shows.  It was, as far as I know, a marketing slogan promoted by either the South African Broadcasting Corporation or Brand South Africa to generate enthusiasm for the tournament—so my initial response was to think there was something inauthentic to its parroting.  At least that’s what I thought rationally, intellectually.  Then South Africa scored a second goal on an inchoate France team, and that Hammanskraal fan park erupted anew.  I suddenly realized that despite my intellectual resistance to uncritical branding—yes: I could feel it.

The beauty and the torture of soccer fandom, I came to appreciate during South Africa 2010, is the way the game simultaneously titillates very different parts of the mind.  The rational and the irrational.  The cognitive and the affective.  The intellectual and the emotional.  I loved this World Cup because it allowed me to try and think hard about globalization, culture, urbanity, inequality, nationalism, identity, sports in society, and many other incarnate ideas that have fascinated me at least since I first travelled through South Africa nearly 15 years ago on my way to two years in Peace Corps Malawi.  But I also loved this World Cup because it allowed me to scream from the bellows of my soul when a ball crossed a line in the grass.

This not-particularly-profound realization has been banging at me in this post-World Cup lull as I reflect back on my all too brief trip to South Africa for the group stage.  Two memories stand out.

One was a day touring Johannesburg with a kind stranger who had stumbled upon one of my pre-World Cup posts and was provoked by my surprise “at how little interest there seems to be in the real soccer experiences, and ‘normal’ daily experiences, of 47 million South Africans who somehow manage—as most of us do—to muddle through.”  The idea of us all ‘muddling through’ struck him as funny, and he offered to show me what he could: I rode three mini-bus taxis to make my way from Pretoria to Sandton, where he picked me up at the mall in his Land Rover (he’d never tried the mini-bus taxis himself, and found it quite amusing that I’d figured the route out).

A many generation South African of Indian descent, an engineer / IT professional who used his vacation time to go off-roading, he was about my age—apartheid ended when he was in secondary school, and he became one of the first students to integrate a prestigious (white) public school in Durban.  But he was more interested in talking about soccer, music, economics, cars, his skateboarding phase complete with dyed blue hair, and his daughter.

At the risk of sounding like a stereotype, she was a vivid emblem of the “new South Africa”—her mother of Afrikaner descent, her father a Muslim, herself an angelic four year old with impeccable manners and grace.  As the father, the daughter, and I toured around downtown Johannesburg—partially just to prove that we could—he talked about the pleasure and pride of having attended South Africa’s opening World Cup game (his wife had never before been to a soccer game, and was a bit surprised to learn that unlike rugby it was legal to make a forward pass), about having experienced more racism on trips to the US than when living in South Africa, and about the ubiquitous question for professional-class South Africans: should he consider looking for greener pastures abroad?  For me the very idea of the day, the confluence of stories, questions, meanings, histories, and identities within a coincidental meeting spurred by a soccer tournament, engaged all the intellectual faculties I ever try to exercise.

Several days later it was my emotion’s turn, sitting in the stands at Loftus Versfeld waiting out an increasingly tense 90 minutes between the US and Algeria.  I had bought the tickets through the US Supporters Club, and found myself amidst the American hard-cores: fans in red, white, and blue body suits and Uncle Sam tuxedos.  I’ve never been a particular fan of Landon Donovan, thinking he got too much too easily in his career, but when he stroked that ball into that net 50 yards from my seat I felt a moment of sheer, irrational ecstasy.  Shrieking.  Fist-pumping.  Shaking.  There would be time later to reflect on whether I was swept up in jingoism, whether my subjectivity had fallen victim to corporate sponsored bread and circus, whether I was experiencing reaction-formation to the anomie I feel in most of my life.  At that moment I found myself trembling with unknown joy under a giant American flag unfurling over my head, watching through blurry eyes while strangers hugged as if meeting family members they thought they’d never see again.  It was, as the kids say, raw.

I’m not sure whether I should be proud of these reactions.  My fascination with the lives of others sometimes feels voyeuristic, my joy at watching a ball cross a line often feels misplaced.  But I do know these things are why I am a soccer fan—for me the game is a perfect place for my intellect and my emotions to reach a symbiosis.

It all reminds me that while Freud was not right about many things, he was right that the human mind is fundamentally conflicted.  We are conflicted between intellect and emotion, between prudence and pleasure, between id impulses and superego strictures.  The challenge is not to eliminate those conflicts, but to find ways of negotiating between them in reasonably healthy ways.  Following soccer mostly works for me.

In that sense South Africa 2010 was a personal fandom apotheosis.  It may not have produced the most entertaining soccer, it may not have been the most prudent use of funds for a country facing daunting inequalities, African teams may not have availed themselves of anything like a home continent advantage, South Africa may still be balancing deep internal divisions, but such limitations are only ledger marks in the fascinating and ongoing negotiations of sports and society.  They are counterbalanced by other marks such as the elegance and symbolism in the performances of teams such as Ghana and Germany, the architectural inspirations of stadiums including Soccer City and Moses Mabhida, the clarity with which this World Cup sent the message that Africa can manage the most lofty of challenges, and the fact that South Africa is a country of nearly infinite vibrancy, talent, and potential.

Feeling comfortable with such potentially conflicting marks was subtly endorsed and illuminated for me by a variety of local commentators I read while in South Africa.  Several journalists noted that the nature of life in South Africa, the legacies of apartheid and the reality of inequality, promotes a degree of comfort with paradox and contradiction (explaining, for example, why many South Africans felt no hypocrisy in supporting both Bafana Bafana and Ghana, or Germany, or Brazil, or whoever).  South African author Mark Gevisser went one step further in a recent Guardian essay: “Indeed, there is a manic-depressive streak to the South African psyche; an after-effect, perhaps, of having once been so favoured after the “Mandela Miracle” transition to democracy. If we are not “the Rainbow Nation” – or the successful hosts of the first African mega-event – then we are another African failed state; Zimbabwe-in-waiting.”  But Gevisser himself is cautiously optimistic: “the power of a grand national pageant [such as the World Cup] is its myth-making potential: whether we were in cars on the way down to Bloemfontein or dancing on the side of the highway, we will tell our children and grandchildren about it and it will become the measure, for years to come, of the Rainbow Nation we imagined we were bringing into being in 1994.”

In fact, in defining fandom as born of psychological contradiction and conflict I find it interesting to look back at my own patterns of writing here on Pitch Invasion around South Africa 2010.  After offering tongue-in-cheek predictions about who would advance from each group ‘if there were any justice in the world’ (a method that resulted in me correctly picking 8 of the 16 teams that would advance—exactly what you’d predict on random chance, furthering my suggestion that there is rarely any justice in the world.), the last post I wrote before I left was full of sentimental defensiveness.  I was bothered by the fear and pessimism surrounding much pre-World Cup media, and offered alternative media sources that I hoped might be more sophisticated and real.  Then while in South Africa, in an effort to find a niche, I wrote about topics such as my unease with the security apparatus around the stadiums, about xenophobia, about the under-development of grass-roots soccer, about what Franz Fanon might think of Soccer City.  In other words, I mostly wrote things that were intellectually critical.

I tried to focus any criticisms on global forces victimizing South Africa, but it just became much easier to offer pseudo-intellectual deconstructions rather than emotional effusions.  The irony is that while it may not have come across in my posts, I loved every single day of my trip to South Africa.  Loved it.

So while some of what I wrote was about xenophobia and inequality and misunderstandings, I want to go on record stating that in my mind South Africa 2010 was a grand success.  It was a tournament that allowed us to intellectually engage with South Africa as a place that matters in global society, and it was a tournament that allowed us to emotionally immerse ourselves in a beautiful game.  It was a tournament that allowed me, ever so briefly, to love Landon Donovan with all my heart.  It was a tournament that made me happy to parrot a marketing slogan for the sake of a brand: FEEL IT!

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