RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — It is difficult to piece together a consistent and coherent assessment of the average fan experience for this World Cup. On the one hand, even everyday folks that you meet will go to extraordinary efforts to help you out, but on the other hand they usually do so because some gaping hole in event planning has left said fan in a difficult position. In this sense, Saturday’s USA-Ghana match exemplified many of the highs and lows of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup.
With kick-off at 8:30 p.m. in rural Rustenburg, I first had to go to the FIFA Ticketing Office in downtown Johannesburg. There is nothing intuitive or intelligent about how FIFA sells, allocates or distributes its tickets. Setting aside the problems associated with selling tickets almost exclusively online on a continent where fewer than 10 percent of people have access to a reliable Internet connection, to say nothing of a Visa card, the site too often crashes and falls victim to myriad maddening errors that will often cause you to lose your order. Even when you do successfully order your tickets, you have to physically pick them up at a downtown office in a process that requires standing in three different lines and sometimes waiting several hours.
The space outside of the FIFA Ticketing Office has become something of a World Cup ticket bazaar, with maybe 500 or so people lingering about at any given moment trying to exchange, buy or sell tickets on a black market that officials largely ignore. Unlike the prescribed, legal route, I found the black market much easier to use. I had tickets to a Brazil match that I did not want to see (I’ve had quite enough of their insufferable preening, diving and cynical play), and walked around until I saw a man with a sign that said he had Mexico-Argentina tickets. We talked for 30 seconds, looked at each other’s respective tickets, swapped, and went on our way. The entire process took five minutes, and though unstructured, was smooth, fair, transparent and simple. FIFA could learn a lesson here.
Navigating South Africa can be a frustrating experience. Many of the amenities of life are first-rate, but just as soon as you find yourself marveling at something wonderfully done, you will rapidly encounter an example of stupefying incompetence. I had just returned from Durban where I witnessed the tepid and shameful display that Portugal and Brazil put on in that city’s wonderful new stadium. Moses Mabhida Stadium is a gorgeous edifice, even more so in person than on television. That match ran smoothly, and small things like the placement and number of food vendors and bathrooms had clearly been thought out. Though the stadium is in the middle of bustling city, intelligent planning had made it so that there was really very little congestion even right after the game ended.
For everything wonderful that can be said about Durban and its stadium, so too could I offer a litany of failures of Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, an architectural disaster whose aesthetic and practical shortcomings are so comprehensive that one is shocked that they actually managed to remember to put grass on the field and seats in the stands. The stadium is situated about three hours north of Johannesburg, a description that might lead you to believe that there is something like an actual human settlement in Rustenburg; There is not. In fact, what you have is a vast windswept tract of land, dotted by the occasional hut, barn or ramshackle house.
A single road leads to Rustenburg, and with one lane of traffic in either direction, the drive can often slow to a standstill because African roads are filled with large trucks that cannot get above 20-30 miles per hour. Given the openness of the land surrounding the stadium, ingress and egress to the stadium should have been a simple matter, but in fact once you are in Rustenburg you have to park in one lot, then get transported by bus to the stadium, which is some five-six miles away. Understandably, this process can take upward of two hours to get from parking lot to your seat.
After the game, when 40,000 people all lined up to get on the buses, it created a bottleneck that still had not begun transporting many fans to the parking lot three hours after the match had ended. Having lived in a college town in which 100,000+ people would arrive and leave smoothly for football Saturdays, it was shocking to see that this venue would fail so comprehensively to manage the fairly simple affair of getting people into and out of a stadium literally surrounded by miles of empty grassland.
Maybe being in South Africa for so long caused the American team to pick up on some of the schizophrenic characteristics of the nation. Sitting in the stadium and watching the US give up to maddeningly soft goals to a scrappy but clearly third-rate team was frustrating enough. Having to do so while trying to drown out the constant din of the vuvuzela, which is much louder and more annoying in person than on television, was too much to bear. By the final whistle, I was incandescent with the rage of a disappointed fan.
On such bad days, I try to pull some lesson or positive from the experience, and as my car slowly rumbled along the back roads of Gauteng Province, I did make one concession. Cecil Rhodes, the mineral magnate who helped to construct the modern South African state, famously said that, “to be born English is to win the lottery of life.” What was true of England in the 19th century is doubly so of America today. The level of American dominance across the range of human endeavors, combined with our naturally insular nature (particularly in sports) means that we rarely know what it is to lose in an undertaking that we care about. So, as I walked silently from the stadium to our car, suffering the insults and taunts of Ghana’s fans (all told, not a classy bunch at all) the inner imperialist wanted to retaliate with insults of my own. But, I held back and smiled, knowing that the imposition of humility is perhaps a good thing. Through such encounters, we remember a broader world filled with people with the talents that are often better than ours.
That humility, though, was short-lived. Ever optimistic and forward-looking, Americans never see losses as losses, but rather as detours on the path to ultimate success. In the parking lot, conversations turned to thoughts about what the team would look like in four years. In 2014, our strikers will know how to score, we’ll sort out the left back position, and we’ll have a genuine stud at defensive midfielder. A fan in a USA astronaut costume erased the dry erase board hanging from his neck that said, “Mission: World Champions 2010,” and replaced it with, “Mission: World Champions 2014.” On an otherwise dour, dire and despicable day, his unwavering optimism made me smile and think, “Damn, I love America.”