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Home Field

As South Africa gets set later today to kick off the biggest international event Africa has ever hosted, the phrases we've coined in the past like "World Cup fever" seem badly lacking as descriptors of what's going on here. We were woken up at 6am this morning by the sound of vuvuzelas being blown by early rising fans of Bafana Bafana.  Even as I type this--in a residential neighborhood that's nowhere near either the center of town or Soccer City, the state-of-the-art football palace where the hosts will take on Mexico this afternoon--there's a steady drone coming from outside, giving all of life the slightly hectic feeling of a Latin American league game. Taking a wrong turn on our way back from the northeast last night, we stumbled upon what seemed to be an impromptu vuvuzela party, with a hundred or so people gathered on a corner of their small town madly blowing on their horns and shouting in anticipatory excitement. So ubiquitous have the vuvuzelas been that a German friend says he fears they'll "ruin the World Cup."

Nothing else seems to exist here aside from the World Cup. Every other person you see is wearing the yellow Bafana Bafana jersey. Just about everyone's off work today. There's been frenzied speculation over whether Mandela--who's increasingly frail and makes few public appearances these days--will make it to the game ("We know it is up to Madiba whether he feels up to it or not... but we hope he does" read one front-page editorial). It now appears he will. We heard a radio segment pitched to women, that interviewed a relationship expert on whether the World Cup would be a good time to find a partner ("if all you have in common is the soccer, then it's probably not going to last," she opined).

The fact that the tournament offers a chance to strengthen the sense of shared South African identity--which has in a way been the country's major project since the end of apartheid--seems to add a particular momentousness to the enthusiasm. Still, soccer is known as a black sport here, and it's the black population that's most into it. The Afrikaans-speaking whites--who follow rugby and cricket--are belatedly coming around to feeling like they have a stake in it, says a South African friend, but they don't see it as theirs. Our Afrikaans safari guides pretty much couldn't have cared less about the football per se--though they admitted they'd probably have watched the opening game if they had a TV.

As for the team itself, my friend, a hard-headed soccer reporter, fears that the national excitement over the event as a whole has blown expectations out of proportion. He thinks the team's FIFA world ranking, 82, is about right, and says South African football has actually declined over the last decade, after the country won the African Nations Cup in '96, then qualified for World Cups in '98 and '02. Aside from Steven Pienaar, Everton's mesmeric dribbler who grew up not far from here, they haven't produced any world class players lately. But even my friend can't help thinking they could surprise people, at least against the notoriously uneven Mexicans today. With the vuvuzelas blaring this afternoon at Soccer City and just about a whole nation seemingly having thought of nothing else for months, they'll certainly have about as big a home-field advantage as any host ever enjoyed.