Yesterday Marta and I travelled to Joburg’s Soccer City stadium in Soweto to see the World Cup opening ceremony and the South Africa vs Mexico match – only my second live match since seeing Twente playing Ajax home from the standing area in the early 1990s. This one was different.
We set off early to make use of one of the Park & Ride facilities, parking with hundreds of others at the University of Witwatersrand campus. A long queue snaked to the buses across the bridge over the M1 highway (where cars blared their horns and our queue blared back with their vuvuzelas), but good organisation meant we were on board in no time.
This still being Africa, appalling planning then resulted in us getting stuck in Friday traffic – all the fan buses were all directed right though the city centre along Simmonds Street, right by the apocalyptic chaos that is the main taxi minibus station. It took us over an hour to crawl past six city blocks, by which time it was 15 minutes to the opening. Incredibly, not a single policeman was there to sort out the mess, and many dozens of other buses with fans were stuck. It would have been easy to dedicate one of the many possible routes to fan bus transport only. From President Street the dedicated bus lane meant we got to the stadium fast, but too late to see the start of the ceremony (which apparently was not too spectacular anyway). But hey, on the plus side we got a great view of the fighter jets and smoking stunt planes that roared over the stadium as part of the show.
Security check was a joke – we went through a metal detector but nobody looked into my bag, which could have contained anything. Then it was a short walk across a pedestrian bridge and past various film crews and photographers to the stadium. We were inside without a wait (and nobody checked ID), and circled up the concrete walkways to our seats at the front of the top tier of seats.We were in time to see the second part of the opening, with the flag show, FIFA’s Sepp Blatter and SA’s President Zuma doing their speeches, and R. Kelly singing something (we couldn’t hear what he was singing because of the vuvuzelas, not necessarily a bad thing).
The stadium looks fabulous; inside the great ‘calabash’ skin there’s an airy space with walkways, and when you walk through the narrow corridors into the seating area, you’re confronted with a huge circular space fringed in yellow-green that roars back at you.
When we arrived there were still lots of empty seats (one whole block right opposite the VIPs and journalists was completely empty, something which FIFA is ‘investigating’). By half time, they announced 84,500 people were in the stadium – an impressive amount, but still over 5,000 short.
The views from our seats were great – the incline is very steep and you have a good view of the whole field, which is much wider than I thought (meaning all those comparisons with ‘as big as X football fields’ have been completely lost on me for decades). Before kick-off we tried to get something to eat, but all the food and beer outlets in the stadium near our seats had run out of their hot dogs and Budweiser an hour before the ceremony started (Mexico fans were incredulously taking photos of the empty beer fridges to send home), so we settled for crisps and coke instead.
I was wearing my orange Holland kit, but soon discovered this has certain disadvantages, as people around me were eager to discuss the fate of the Dutch team and asked for names of the players (‘the black one playing for Milan’), and I had no clue of course. Marta was waving her Poland flag, but as her team didn’t make it to SA, it was more in general support of her country and to make herself visible for her family back home (a dot of white-red in a sea of yellow-green looks great); her football knowledge is even more pathetic than mine. But she didn’t go so far as to read her magazine during the match, which is perhaps the best compliment the South African and Mexican teams can get.
After the national anthems, the first half had the crowd near us quite animated, and worried too after the Mexicans got a chance at scoring in the first minutes. The vuvuzelas kept tooting throughout, but earplugs were only really necessary when there were such musicians right behind you, otherwise it was just a loud drone. After the break, when South Africa scored the first goal of the World Cup, the stadium really lifted off. The noise was deafening, everyone jumping around. The guy sitting next to Marta was hopping in his seat and dancing in circles at every ball that Bafana Bafana managed to take from the Mexicans beforehand, but now he was truly ecstatic. For about 15 minutes, South Africa must have been the centre of the universe, but then Mexico broke the spell by making the score 1-1. That was the only moment that our side of the stadium was completely silent – you could now hear the cheering Mexicans. The only moment of ugliness, a drunk SA supporter making some trouble two rows from us, was quickly dealt with by the stewards appointed to take care of the audience.
Getting home was amazingly efficient. There was a 20-minute walk to the buses, passing the TV studios. Ever wondered how all those different TV channels can all have glass-backed rooms overlooking the stadium? They build their studios in container modules, lifted high up on massive scaffolding structures some distance from the stadium. We were on board a bus in no time and back at the Wits parking in 30 minutes.
Visiting the opening match was really a great experience, and apart from some glitches the event seems to be prepared and run extremely well. Bafana Bafana did not lose, which in the eyes of many here means they actually won. The most important aspect of this first day of the World Cup is that South Africa has proven that it can pull off organising the world’s largest event well, keeping everyone safe and making an incredible impression of friendliness and hospitality on their foreign visitors. We’re honoured to be residents of such a proud country.
Tooting at traffic, traffic tooting back.
On the bus, happy.
One hour later: complete traffic gridlock, less happy. The fan walking by is clutching a newspaper ad saying ‘Can you feel it’.
First glimpse of the stadium from the highway. Good for a round of applause and vuvuzela-tooting in the bus.
Inside the skin of the great calabash.
Waving the flag for the Motherland. Even if they’re not here.
The view straight down.
R. Kelly does his thing during the opening ceremony.
Philips lamps doing a marvellous job.
Weird TV studios with big windows and no curtains, just like back home in Holland.
The official fan shop, selling shirts and scarves. Notice the sign saying they’re ‘proud to accept only Visa’. Meaning they miss out on many sales to people who only have other bank cards. This use of the word proud is a little strange, as in ‘the stadium is proud to run out of food and beer before the game even starts”, and ‘Johannesburg City is proud to to forget about thousands of fans heeding the call to use the shuttle buses but still getting stuck in traffic’!