Just Add A Cup of Ayoba

If it wants to host the '22 World Cup, the U.S. must match the spirit of South Africa
July 11, 2010

If there's one thing the U.S. could use as it tries to win its bid to bring the World Cup back to America in 2022, it's ayoba. That is the word of this South African World Cup. Well, no, actually, the word of this World Cup is vuvuzelas—those irrepressible buzzing horns that drown out the voices of television announcers across the ocean and invade the dreams of those of us who've been over here.

But ayoba is the word you hear most. It's a hard word to bring to English. The people here say translations like brilliant or joyous are entirely too tame—ayoba is a happiness larger than that. The woman who controls the cable car that takes tourists up and down Table Mountain in Cape Town goes further. "It means awesomeness," she says. "Just ... awesomeness."

Ayoba is what has marked the World Cup, the first truly worldwide sporting event held on the African continent. Yes, there were countless worries leading up to the tournament—worries about safety, worries about crime, worries about hotel space and transportation, worries about infrastructure. For the most part these worries have proved to be overblown. True, there is a quiet but unmistakable tension here, especially in the nation's largest city, Johannesburg, where you are constantly warned not to walk by yourself, and large walls topped by barbed wire mark the landscape.

But the ayoba overwhelms tensions and small inconveniences. It is almost impossible to go anywhere here without someone asking if you are enjoying South Africa, wanting to talk about your country and team, offering to help you, telling you that for this nation still coming together after apartheid, hosting the World Cup is ayoba.

Bringing the World Cup to Africa was a controversial choice by soccer's ruling body, FIFA. But these choices are almost always controversial. When the World Cup was given to the U.S. in 1994, that decision rankled some, even though the U.S. offered superb facilities and accommodations and infrastructure. The feeling then was that there was little spirit for soccer in the U.S. More to the point, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, there was unbridled disdain for the sport.

Even now, 16 years later, as the U.S. tries to get back the World Cup, the question remains: Can the U.S. provide the ayoba for a World Cup?

"It's clear that we've had the watercooler moment," says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who is in South Africa to lobby for America's bid hopes. "There has been a lot of talk back home during this World Cup, a lot of interest, far beyond what we had in 1994."

In fact, Gulati can't help but feel disappointment because the U.S. lost a winnable game against Ghana in the round of 16 when there was unprecedented interest back home. "We didn't fully capture our opportunity," he says. Still, he thinks the nation's passion for soccer has emerged.

Maybe. The 2014 World Cup is already set for Brazil. The U.S. still has its bid on the table for 2018, but Gulati concedes the likelihood that the '18 World Cup will be held in Europe, with England seemingly the favorite.

That leaves the 2022 Cup, and the U.S. hungrily goes after it with a power bid that includes a 1,250-page bid book; a celebration of American diversity ("Every team that can be playing has home fans in the United States," Gulati says); the political clout of honorary bid chairman Bill Clinton and vice president Joe Biden; the celebrity pull of Spike Lee, Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger; and the financial muscle of 18 major cities with international airports and NFL-sized stadiums that already are signed up. The U.S. bid even promises to turn the FIFA Confederations Cup—a dress rehearsal held the year before the Cup begins—into the "major event" of the U.S. summer.

But can the U.S. provide ayoba? Even with the increased American enthusiasm during this World Cup, it wasn't hard to find antisoccer sentiment in the papers, on the radio and in the offices at those watercoolers. The feeling about the 1994 World Cup in America is that while it was extremely successful financially, it lacked passion. Gulati believes that this time around, the U.S., in addition to furnishing those financial advantages, can provide soul.

"One thing I talk about is the new outlook in the U.S. about the world," Gulati says. "I refer to President Obama's Cairo speech, us reaching out to the world.... And I think to be integrated and joining the world in what is by far the world's No. 1 sport—one we don't dominate—is very important."

Of course, even while Gulati and others lobby, few in South Africa are thinking about 2022. There is a sense of triumph now that this year's event has come off beautifully. There are countless moments to savor, one of which occurred last Saturday in Cape Town after Germany beat Argentina. A woman dressed like a German flag raced through the street shouting, "Deutschland! Deutschland!" She was crying and screaming, and being cheered by hundreds of people. A South African security guard smiled and said, "That is ayoba."

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The '94 Cup, while successful, lacked passion. Gulati thinks this time the U.S. can provide SOUL.

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