JOHANNESBURG--During halftime at tonight's Confed Cup, with the U.S. miraculously up two-nothing over Brazil, I went to go gloat to a British friend over a beer at one of the stadium's Budweiser stands. "I'm feeling triumphalist again!" I told him, raising my American flag over my head.
"It's halftime," he warned. "Don't have a 'Mission Accomplished' moment."
Of course, those of you who watched know what happened next: The Brazilians overpowered the Americans with three swift, neat goals. "I was George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier," I mourned to my Brit afterwards. "Games have second halves," he retorted. "Maybe next time you can have a surge."
There's something about soccer that inspires metonymy, the teams and their prospects standing in for the souls of the nations and their just deserts. Over at the Atlantic, Adam Serwer suggests that America didn't deserve to win tonight because "much of the time, when it comes to international sports, we wipe the floor with the rest of the world. Soccer is where the rest of the world wipes the floor with us. And there's a certain kind of karma to that." I get where he's coming from, but I also think Adam's overthinking it and being more self-deprecating than even "the rest of the world"--the developing world, not my Brit but the Brazilians and South Africans packing the stadium--would wish us to be. The South Africans in the row ahead of me didn't seem to care who won, but when I handed them my extra American flags and said, "Obama!" they became as ebullient U.S. boosters as anybody, booing Brazil when it scored and tooting a "U-S-A" rhythm over and over on their vuvuzela horns. And, after America scored its second improbable goal in the first half, even my section's rowdiest Brazilian crowd turned their pro-Brazil placard around, scrawled on the back, and held a new, appreciative message up for the TV cameras: "Obama's Boys Show Yes They Can!"
Anyway: Tonight wasn't really about America. It wasn't about Brazil, either. This was South Africa's night. Anxious, self-conscious South Africa proved it can put on a big sporting tournament, and it proved Africa can take its turn as international host like other continents do, even in spite of its troubles. One image sticks in my mind from the closing ceremonies: The words "thank you" in various African languages, projected onto a nifty giant balloon levitating over the field. It was so modern, so Cirque du Soleil, so burnished and fancy and ... corporate, like the spectacular balloon centerpieces you sometimes see at white-shoe firm Christmas parties. It hinted at resources, at wealth; and it made such a contrast to the usual images of suffering, dusty, premodern Africa you see on TV. I think the World Cup's going to bring a lot of unexpected images out of this place.