GUGULETHU, South Africa -- The match seemed meaningless outside of its value as a curiosity. South Africa entered Tuesday's game against a hilariously imploding France team needing an implausible string of results to advance to the knockout stages; Bafana Bafana had to beat Les Bleus and hope the other Group A match, between Uruguay and Mexico, didn't end in a draw. And the South Africans had to somehow make up a five-goal deficit. The odds of advancing were so remote. the morning papers understandably opted to push a patronizing message, the same one the parents of bad Little Leaguers whisper in their kids' ears: Just try hard, honey, that's all that really matters. "Let's bow out gracefully and take pride in being great hosts," blared a headline on the op-ed page of the Cape Times. The editorial next to it read, "The chances of [South Africa] getting through to the next round -- even against a France team in disarray -- seem remote, but it would be a tonic for all South Africans were they able to walk away from the game with their heads held high."
So as I neared Mzoli's, a braai (barbecue) restaurant some 12½ miles outside of Cape Town, I wasn't expecting much. The trip had been suggested by Charles, a local cabbie who has befriended me and a couple of friends I have in town. He suggested we go watch a game in a township, maybe sample a little genuine local flavor. I was expecting an educational experience, one that might show me, if nothing else, what day-to-day life was like in a foreign country. I got a whole lot more.
Here's the funny part of it all. One of my favorite things about the World Cup is the final group stage games are played simultaneously (to prevent collusion and keep one team from gaining an advantage by knowing how a group rival has fared). On the occasions in which both games matter, it's fascinating watching them unfold. One of my favorite World Cup memories is from eight years ago, when the U.S. was sitting pretty in the group stage, having beaten Portugal and drawn South Korea. All the Yanks had to do was not spit the bit against Poland in their third match and they'd be through to the knockout stage. But they didn't just spit the bit. They spit everything remotely resembling a bit. That meant that all of a sudden the other game, between Portugal and South Korea, was of paramount importance; if South Korea could beat Portugal, then the U.S. would still sneak through. I watched the game at a bar near the office (it kicked off at 7:30 a.m.). Once Poland went ahead 1-0, everyone took one eye off the U.S. game and put it on the Portugal game. Once Poland went up 3-0, pretty much every eye was on the other game.
But when South Africa jumped out to a 2-0 lead Tuesday, no one was paying any attention what was happening in the other game -- which all of sudden had taken on incredible significance. There were at least 1,000 people, probably more, wedged into Mzoli's, watching Bafana Bafana play on half a dozen screens. Not a single TV showed the Uruguay-Mexico game. I was texting furiously, trying to get a score, trying to find out if one of the permutations by which South Africa would finish second in the group would come to fruition. I was the only one in the room who seemed to care.
And that was the beauty of it all. I've never been around a group of fans more singularly focused than that crowd. All they cared about was South Africa playing well, about the players being able to walk away with, as the paper hoped, their heads held high. That's an easy sentiment to get behind when anything more seems impossible. It's a much tougher one to take to heart and live by when all of a sudden advancing to the knockout stages becomes a real possibility. But no one was interested in the what-ifs; they just wanted to see their guys play well. And their guys did play well. Exceedingly so. As a result, there was so much singing and dancing and chanting that Jeff, one of the guys who made the trip, must have said half-a-dozen times, "This is the coolest thing ever." No one in our group argued with him.
This is probably the time to point out I'm well aware that there's something inherently off-putting about slumming. Jarvis Cocker said it best when he sang in Pulp's Common People, "Cos everybody hates a tourist, especially one who thinks it's all such a gas." That's especially true for a journalist, someone who's dropping in to see how the other half lives for a couple hours to fill a notebook for a story and then heading home. So I felt a bit skittish heading out to a shanty town to watch the game. But what I saw, what I felt when I got there, was mind-boggling. The crowd was mixed -- more black than white, but mixed. But any worries I had about feeling out of place were allayed within minutes of arriving. I was wearing a Bafana Bafana shirt; that was good enough for the Mzoli's crowd.
After the game ended -- after South Africa came oh-so-close to making things interesting -- I was standing outside Mzoli's, talking to a guy who was selling T-shirts when a man who appeared to be in his early 40s wandered up to me. He asked who I was and if I was having fun, then he introduced himself as Mzoli Ngcawuzle, the owner. When he found out I was a Yank, he told me how he's visited Kentucky, Memphis and other points down south to study the art of barbecuing. (He's never visited Texas, ironic given his restaurant is like the kind of places you see in the hill country outside Austin: You point to some uncooked meat and then some guys in an oppressively hot, smoky room cook it up for you.) "This is through and through a rainbow nation," he told me. "Whoever lives in this country belongs to this country." And today -- given the job they've done supporting their team and playing host to a world of guests --they all have reason to walk with their heads held high.