JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- On Sunday evening, with the temperature dropping into the high forties in the tony Melrose Arch section of this teeming city, I followed four wafer-thin Namibians through a ritzy outdoor mall. These men were about 25, and about 5-foot-8. They might have weighed 100 pounds. All four carried sturdy brown walking sticks. They wore brown sandals and leather loin coverings that I'd best describe as mini-skirts. And that's all they wore.
The four talked in their native tongue happily among themselves, walking by a Mont Blanc store, then a shop with $5,000 watches, and made it to the 50-yard-by-50-yard neighborhood square, where, as in scores of neighborhoods in South Africa these days, a huge TV screen was set up for watching World Cup games. While the four waited for the Germany-Australia game to begin, they gathered with a few other Namibians hoisting the Namibia flag (with woven blankets around their shoulders), and danced to some African music from a local band onstage.
I looked around. There were Hondurans with their flag, dozens of Brazilians with a few of theirs, Italians in their smart blue Azzuri jackets, Germans (who somehow, somewhere found Becks), South Africans on and offstage, Americans, English, Spaniards, Dutch (in bright orange), vocal and imbibing Aussies, a ton of Mexicans (with a few sombreros), Ghanaians with their trademark black star celebrating their afternoon victory, and a family of Danes, all in Danish team jerseys.
When the game kicked off, fans of all these nations blew those omnipresent vuvuzelas, drank Castles and Windhoeks from passing beer vendors, and stood shoulder to shoulder, yelling and rooting and drinking. (And in many cases, annoyingly, smoking.)
Americans in sweatshirts, and Namibians in skirts and carrying walking sticks, watching Germany play Australia. The World Cup. It's not like anything I've seen.
As I write this, it's early Wednesday night (South African time) in Melrose Arch. I'm in the press room, writing with other American scribes, on the second floor of a hotel. It's two hours before South Africa-Uruguay, and we hear the sound of drums, whistles, vuvuzelas and singing from the same stage, a block away, I heard the African music the other night.
If I were home in Boston, I'd be paying passing attention to the World Cup. If I'd seen Italy's Daniele De Rossi score the equalizer against Paraguay and shed immediate tears of joy, I'd have said, "Emotional Italian.'' If I'd been watching the camera pan the North Korean players during their Anthem Tuesday night and seen one of them bawling like a baby, I'd have said, "That's what living in a totalitarian state does to you,'' or something dumb like that.
But I'm not there. I'm here. And when Maicon scored the impossible-angle goal for Brazil Tuesday, I jumped out of my seat in the upper deck at Ellis Park here. I had to stifle an "Incredible!!!'' I never do that at an NFL game. I don't know what to say about the experience of covering a World Cup -- this is day 12 of my time in South Africa -- other than you've got to be in the middle of it to understand it.
I'm sure ESPN is doing a heck of a job back home; it has to be leaps better than the local coverage, which is college-TV-stationish. But ... well, let me tell you this story to explain: My wife, Ann, is with me on the trip, and I can tell you that other than the Steelers and a little about the Red Sox, she cares nothing about sports. But the other day, when I was out working, she had the TV in our room on, and there were 20 minutes left in Slovakia-New Zealand. She was preparing to go out to exercise, and then she heard the announcer on the TV say New Zealand had never scored a World Cup goal in its history. So she stayed for a few minutes, rooting for New Zealand, and when the Kiwis scored just before time expired, she hollered in excitement.
I'm not telling you that you should gather around the TV tomorrow and be spellbound by USA-Slovenia. If you're like me, you don't know where Slovenia is. What I'm telling you is the World Cup should be on your sporting bucket list. One of our cabbies the other day said he had some Spaniards in his cab, and they said as soon as this World Cup is over, they'll go home to their lives in Spain and begin saving for their trip to the World Cup in 2014 in South America.
I'm not going to change the way I follow sports when I get home. It'll still be the American standbys: football and baseball, then hockey, and then basketball occasionally. But this is a terrific experience. Can't wait to see the game Friday, and I've got Brazil again on Sunday.
By the way, Brazil's my team here -- other than the USA, of course. For a long time I've felt teams like Brazil were filled with showboats. And maybe some still are, but Brazil, with so much incredible individual talent, didn't showboat. When I watched this game, I thought Bill Belichick ought to get a tape of Brazil playing, hand it to his team and say, "Guys, this is what defines teamwork. Watch.''
Against North Korea, Brazil had three occasions in which it passed the ball 20 or more times before either losing it or taking a shot. The Brazilians were cool all game, even when it was scoreless at halftime and the whole place thought the game should have been over midway through the half. The Brazilians' versatile midfielder, Gilberto Silva, who speaks very good English, told a couple of us afterward: "The world is full of equal teams right now. So when you play any team here, desperation doesn't work. You have to be patient. Just work as a team for a goal. That is what we do. That is what you have to do to win in this game -- work as a team.''
Enlightening game. Enlightening tournament. So what if the coffee stinks? I'm really glad I came.