Michael Church In South Africa

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am

Sandton's neon lights are ablaze barely a kilometre from Innisfree Park, the green glow from Johannesburg's glitziest and wealthiest district illuminating the sky above. Below is Nelson Mandela Square, where well-heeled South Africans and foreign visitors congregate to create a cultural melting pot beneath the eponymous statue at the centre of the plaza.

It is a safe, controlled, even sterile environment and the only danger that exists is that visiting fans will believe this is representative of the real South Africa.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The high-class restaurants and designer shops that make up one of the city's most exclusive districts feel much farther away from Innisfree Park than the short walk it is in reality.

In a cordoned-off area, surrounded by the colourful branding that has been adopted for the World Cup, a growing band of fans gathers in front of the large screen at the bottom of the natural amphitheatre. Many have made a lengthy trek just to watch the game on a glorified TV; the Alexandra township lies a five-kilometre walk away and hundreds, if not thousands, have made the journey on foot in freezing temperatures.

Such is the lure of the World Cup for many ordinary South Africans - many of whom simply can't afford tickets which cost as much as 25 times the price of a South African Premier League game - they are prepared to congregate together in temperatures as low as zero degrees Celsius at one of the officially organised Fan Fest parks.

The Fan Fest was the brainchild of the Germans at the previous World Cup and, after it proved to be a phenomenal success, Fifa - as is its wont - commandeered the concept and have draped it in corporate trinkets.

The official viewing parties extend across South Africa in 10 locations, with one in each of the host cities except for Johannesburg, which boasts two parks; one near Sandton and the other in the township of Soweto.

The concept, though, extends beyond South Africa, with Fifa setting up Fan Fest viewing sites in cities across the globe: Berlin, Mexico City, Paris, Rome, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney are all home to the outdoor viewing experience.

Here in South Africa, it has allowed the average football fan - predominantly the poor black locals - to congregate in a way that has as closely replicated as possible the match-day atmosphere inside the stadiums while watching on a large screen.

The sense, though, is less of the large, modern venues with their plastic tip-up seats and the well-organised and structured confines in which these World Cup matches are taking place.

Rather, the Fan Fest smacks of something more historic; watching football with one of these football-worshipping congregations on a cold winter's night is akin to huddling together on the terraces in pre-1990s Britain mixed with the spirit of attending an open-air rock show. It's like Glastonbury meets The Kop.

Except, that is, for one or two local flavours, some adding to the occasion and another that detracts.

Prior to kick-off, there is little doubt this is an African event. On the edge of the crowd, the tight huddle against the cold is forsaken for participation in a swirling, circular, rhythmic run-cum-dance, its very vibrancy drawing in more onlookers and others eager to join in. Quasi-tribal dances break out randomly throughout the crowd in a celebration of the match to come.

Unfortunately, however, the object that has become the bane of many turns up in abundance as well, rendering much of what goes on throughout the game inaudible. With the football little more than disappointing so far - the goal count at the end of the first round of group matches was far below the previous worst at a World Cup - the vuvuzela has become one of the main talking points and it is a polarising topic.

In the main, black South Africans - its chief proponents - defend the use of the China-made plastic trumpet and the rasping din it creates to the hilt. A growing band, however, is railing against its omnipresence.

Television companies have been forced to turn down the volume on their broadcasts, such is the monotony of the drone coming from within the stadiums, but perhaps more importantly the vuvuzela - the instrument that was supposed to symbolise the tournament in South Africa - is smothering the diversity that is usually prevalent at a World Cup.

The vuvuzela is turning into a killer of one of the more colourful aspects of football culture; the chants and singing that allow supporters of different teams and nations to express their support for their side. Such has been the spread of the trumpet throughout all 10 venues, even when South Africa are not involved the vuvuzela's buzz is present and persistent.

And so, what was seen at the beginning as a display of the local football culture is now turning into a colonisation of the airwaves; it is the kind of market saturation of which McDonald's or Starbucks would be proud, only in reverse.

Supporters from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, England, Spain and across the football world are famous for the unique way in which they laud their teams and their heroes, but with the tournament in the grip of the vuvuzela, that is not the case here.

Even Danny Jordaan, the man heading up South Africa's hosting of the finals, has gone as close as he dare to criticising its use, threatening to ban the plastic trumpet should a supporter throw one onto the pitch - a tempting thought - while also proclaiming a preference for the singing and chanting of old.

During apartheid, football stadiums were used as arens in which to protest against minority white rule, with the terrace culture providing the environment in which many of the songs of defiance were either born or aired.

That creative side of South Africa's football culture is now being drowned in the sound of the vuvuzela and, although it is celebrated locally, the truth is it is muting the very thing that gave the sport its foothold in this nation's psyche.