FIFA fever

CBC crew blogs from South Africa about the 2010 World Cup
David Gutnick at field level in Soccer City Stadium. ((CBC))

"Flight 990 from Paris to Johannesburg is ready for boarding," is the announcement and 455 of us line up two by two, ready to board the world's largest passenger aircraft. Through the windows we see the Airbus 380. With its double row of passenger windows, it almost looks like a ship that should be tied up at a dock, not sitting on a tarmac. Nice plane. I cannot help but think of the Canadian headlines last week about Justice Jeffrey Oliphant's report — and all the money handed out in the brown envelopes by Karlheinz Schreiber.

In French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, isiZulu, siXhosa and Afrikaans, FIFA fever is rampant as I overhear conversation after conversation about who will come out on top.

A fellow from Mexico has jams his sombrero into the overhead luggage compartment. He tries to be gentle but the other passengers want to get to their seats so he just folds over the brim and pulls down the door. A couple from Chile slides into their seats and start clicking through the film menu. There is a whole section on soccer. We lose ourselves in the masterful documentary by the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica about Argentine superstar Maradona. We are gently pulled into the world of the soccer genius as he scores goals and shares cigars and conversations with Fidel Castro.

Stanton sits next to me. He is wearing his bright yellow South Africa jersey under his suit jacket. He is a 31-year-old accountant for a multinational computer company and is coming back from a business trip to Slovakia.

"This World Cup makes me so proud," he tells me, "because finally the world will be looking at South Africa and thinking how beautiful it is, rather than just thinking it is another poor African country." 

A street vendor with his unofficial flags and T-shirts. ((CBC))

Stanton tells me that he and his wife have just bought a house in a new mixed suburb of Johannesburg where they will raise their five-week-old son.

"I went to university in Cape Town," he tells me, "a university that was traditionally white. I learned to be proud and that I have a right to be financially comfortable. My son will not have to go through what I did and that is the new South Africa. FIFA is a celebration of that. I am wearing the Bafana Bafana yellow jersey because it makes me feel like all we South Africans are on the same side."

A couple of hours after landing, I am accredited and fancy free. With my pass around my neck I head over to the stunning new Soccer World stadium built on the edge of Soweto. Some say it looks like a flying saucer made from scraps of wood. I rather like the more poetic description of the stadium as a giant calabash, the African gourd that is used to hold food and water and used for cooking. About 94,000 people can sit in this giant calabash, protected from the sun by its gentle, curving walls.

Construction workers pose before heading into Soccer City Stadium for some last-minute touch-ups. ((CBC).)

Where have I felt like this before, I ask myself. And it comes. The Big O. The same oval shape around the field, the same sloping of the seats, the same feeling of being inside, well, inside a womb. South Africa's new architectural pride and joy is an African take on the gray cement stadium in Montreal's east end. Only Soccer City is better. Much better. It cost hundreds of millions less and there is no roof to repair. The beautiful brown panels that cover the outside blend in perfectly with the red earth. At night it glows in the distance, a checkerboard of light hanging in the air near Soweto.

Happiness Molonwabo is dressed all in black, just like hundreds of other security guards who are practising their moves.  "My job," says Happiness, "is to stand with my back to the pitch and look up at the crowd during each match. If I see people who are drinking too much or who are out of control I tell my boss, who will take care of them." Happiness tells me she is being paid a little over a 100 rand a day, about $15. She tells me she is happy with it, though I later hear rumours that some of the security personnel are upset that they are not receiving the amounts they were promised and might go on strike before the first game. To be continued.

When I turn on my television, there is the South African minister of s4port and recreation saying the massive amounts of money being spent on the World Cup infrastructure will be worth it in the end. The investments will pay off.  Opponents say the government has handed the country over to FIFA.

At a gas station store, I buy the Mail & Guardian newspaper. The young woman behind the bulletproof glass scans the price and slides it back to me in a metal drawer. On page 6, a headline reads, "FIFA Called the Shots and We Said Yes." Apparently, the South African government and FIFA came to an agreement where — among other things — the organization  has the right to bypass restrictions governing the movement of foreign currencies, gets discounted hotel rates and guarantees that police officers will enforce the protection of marketing rights. A professor is quoted as saying that it looks like the South African government is "no longer calling the shots."

Day 1 and time for bed. I head across the courtyard where I am staying, behind a three-metre-high concrete wall with barbed wire on top. The warm breeze is nice. I am in sandals. I am thinking of a morning dip in the pool. "Are you crazy?" asks a woman who hands me my key, "It is winter. I is cold out, 19 degrees." True, I did see a lot of people wearing tuques.

And even in the sunshine in Soccer City, Happiness had her thick nylon coat zipped up tight.

Happiness Molonwabo, left, takes a break from practising being a crowd-control security guard in Soccer City with David Gutnick. ((CBC))