I knew I had arrived at the World Cup when I heard the sound of a vuvuzela bounce off the walls of Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport. The noise of the long plastic soccer horn wasn’t widely recognized outside South Africa until this year’s World Cup. But now every soccer fan knows a vuvuzela’s call is like a foghorn or a donkey braying, or—when blown in unison—like a nest of loud angry hornets. To many fans, the vuvuzela’s call is an aural safety hazard and an annoyance. But it sets off pure, unadulterated excitement in me, especially when I heard it moments after landing in South Africa.
My first World Cup match was going down at a newly constructed stadium in Durban, a beach town in South Africa that’s about half the size of Jo’burg on the Indian Ocean. South Korea and Nigeria were the two contenders in the match. And I had company: my boyfriend, Mansoor, and two good friends who had flown in from Paris. After meeting up at the airport, we all piled into a rented red Toyota Corolla sedan at the airport and headed to Durban.
There were few signs of football fever on the dusty six-hour drive. The horizon was flat and broken up by an occasional rust-colored butte and herds of curly-horned cattle. Here and there, we saw hitchhikers and laborers ambling along the side of the road, carrying packs, axes, and agricultural tools. We got the first sign that South Africa was hosting 32 of the world’s best soccer teams at a rest stop diner called Maxi’s. Our toasties and coffees were dropped off by a server wearing a yellow “World Cup” T-shirt emblazoned with South Africa’s green, red, yellow, blue, black, and white flag.
As we got closer to Durban, we picked up a World Cup match on the radio. It was Portugal dominating North Korea, 7-nil. Our ears popped as the Toyota wended its way through curvy passes and plumes of smoke coming from farmers burning fields to rejuvenate grazing pastures. Soon, the N3 highway became congested, and we heard Punjabi music playing on the radio. Indian laborers first came to Durban to harvest sugar cane in the late 1800s; the city is now home to South Africa’s largest concentration of people of South Asian descent. We entered Durban’s city limits, and soon clapped eyes on the ocean, tropical palm trees, and Durban’s Moses Mabhida football stadium.
The newly built stadium sits on Isaiah Ntshangase Road next to King’s Park Soccer Stadium. It was barely finished in time for Durban’s first World Cup match in mid-June. As we walked to the stadium for our South Korea-Nigeria march, it looked like a clamshell, cracked open and aglow with fluorescent light. Our seats had cost $80, and as such, were in the nosebleed section of the stadium. Still, we were positioned at center pitch and could see the field below.
The people in our section were mostly Durbanite families, and at least initially, appeared to be casual fans. However, it soon became clear that the match was going to be a nail-biter. Kalu Uche, #12, scored Nigeria’s first goal thirteen minutes into the game, and celebrated by wagging his tongue and flapping his arms like a chicken. The locals in our row, like much of the stadium, were up on their feet after that. Some of them had Nigeria’s flag painted on one cheek and South Africa’s flag on the other, indicating that they were backing African teams since their own team had been knocked out of the second round earlier that day. “Since I’m an African, I’m rooting for Nigeria,” a female South African security officer told me at the gate.
South Korea’s #14, Lee Jung-Soo, scored the next goal 38 minutes into the game. “Yes! Yes! Good boy!” shouted a woman in a red jacket, South Korea’s color, sitting behind me. A teenager in a black and red South Korea shirt beside her blew his red vuvuzela, too. Opposite our section, a well-coordinated group of South Korea fans waved a giant red and white flag after the goal, and a brass band started to play its fight song.
Suddenly, half-time was upon us. The score was 1-1. Television screens above each goal showed Colombia’s favorite pop star, Shakira, belting out “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” which has become one of the World Cup’s anthems. As the players ran onto the field, tensions ran high. Nigeria had to beat South Korea to make it to the knockout stage, or the next round of 16.
Four minutes into the second half, South Korea’s #10 made Nigeria’s task more difficult. Park Chu-Young punched a free kick into the goal from outside the penalty box on the left wing. That made the score 2-1, South Korea. The mother behind me cackled and shouted her support, and the boy’s red vuvuzela wailed again. Seventeen minutes later, Nigeria’s forest green-clad players tied the match thanks to a penalty kick from #8 Yakubu Aiyegbeni that easily went past the South Korean keeper. The score was now 2-2. But Nigeria still needed to score another goal to win the match and advance—something they could not manage to do despite many missed opportunities. As the final whistle blew, the winning squad charged to the South Korean section of fans to celebrate while the Nigerian players fell to their knees, knowing their time at the World Cup had come to a premature end.
I played soccer up until I moved to New York at age twenty. But during the time I played, I never attended a professional soccer tournament and am still trying to wrap my head around the culture of football. America’s basketball, baseball, and football stadiums are souped up with massive scoreboards and jumbotrons, bombarding fans with player statistics and replays so that fans can judge the referees’ calls. The Durban Moses Mabhida stadium has two medium-sized screens that show the game, but there is no official game clock, or extra information about the team or its squads. The players get the game time from coaches on the sidelines, and fans just have to keep track of the clock, or use binoculars to read it on the television screen.
As we got sucked into a throng of ecstatic South Korean fans, I couldn’t wait for my next World Cup game. Not even the two-hour shuttle bus ride to our rental car dampened my mood. I went to bed thinking about who would make it to the round of 16 game we were going to the next week in Cape Town.