POSTCARD: The Men of Bafana Bafana

KWAZULU-NATAL, South Africa—I never expected the sound I would associate with my time in South Africa to be that of a cheap, obnoxious, plastic trumpet. But since the first week of my two-month stay in KwaZulu-Natal, vuvuzela have been the soundtrack of my summer.

Since the beginning of June, nearly every conversation I’ve had in South Africa has been about one of two things—the paperwork I’m doing in the HIV clinic where I work, or the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The breakdown of the evening news is as follows: 15 minutes on the World Cup, five minutes on business, five minutes on other sports, and five minutes on the weather. In South Africa this summer, there is no other news. The World Cup is that big, and no matches have been bigger than the trio played by Bafana Bafana, South Africa’s beloved national team.

The men of Bafana Bafana had the tallest of orders ahead of them—defy all reasonable expectations and advance to the knockout round against the likes of international powers Uruguay, Mexico, and France. Were they able to do it? Not quite, but by beating France and drawing with Mexico, they sure did come close. But for me, and for thousands of South Africans everywhere, the moment I will remember most is that instant where anything seemed possible.

In the tournament’s opening match, Bafana Bafana squared off with Mexico—a team which, on paper, it didn’t stand an ice cube’s chance in hell of beating. The Mexicans dominated the first half of play, and I thought South Africa was lucky to escape the first half with a 0-0 scoreline.

But near the beginning of the second half, everything changed. Siphiwe Tshabalala streaked up the left side of the pitch, and suddenly everyone in the room was on their feet. One strike and the ball crossed in front of the goalie, landing squarely in the top right corner of the net. A beautiful goal, I thought to myself. And then everyone in the hospital foyer, where I was watching the game with the staff and inpatients, went mad. There was screaming, jumping, and hugging. Nurses ran around grabbing their yellow jerseys and dancing. Even my summer roommate, who admits she had never before been excited about an athletic contest, was into it. We opened the doors and heard the chorus of dozens of vuvuzelas echoing off the hills, united behind this little team that could.

Although Bafana Bafana is out of contention for the title, the sense of unity in South Africa hasn’t dissipated. The country, carrying the burden of the whole continent on its shoulders, is determined to put on the best show possible. As Ghana makes its run through the knockout rounds, commentators have now taken to calling this “Africa’s World Cup,” and even I, a staunch American supporter, will be hard-pressed not to support the Black Stars in the quarterfinals—even after they ousted my squad on Saturday night in overtime.

In South Africa, more than anywhere else I’ve ever been, sport is bringing people together. You can hear it in the vuvuzelas that ring out from children’s soccer games and from taxi windows. Now, with the world cup completed, there has been more excitement for other soccer teams around the world, but nothing can compare to the sheer elation of South Africans when that first goal hit the back of the net.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: July 15, 2010

An earlier version of the opinion piece "POSTCARD: The Men of Bafana Bafana" incorrectly referred to the Ghana national soccer team as "Black Star." The correct name is the Black Stars.