The cavernous sports bar to the east of Johannesburg rings with the manic cries of England football fans, during a warm-up game for the World Cup. “Viva John Terry! Viva John Terry!” they scream and sing, under a giant TV screen, in honor of the center back of the Three Lions - England’s soccer team.
Waitresses, faces shining with sweat, hurry to fulfill orders. They stagger into the haze across a wet floor with trays laden with overflowing glasses. England fans – no matter where they are in the world – have a reputation for loving beer just as much as they adore their national sport, football.
They’re also known for their dry, caustic humor – evident in the many songs they sing during soccer matches. In the Grand Slam Sports Café, when England’s opponents come close to scoring, the English fans turn to a group of cheering rival supporters and chant, “Where were you when they were .…?” using an expletive that renders their opponents speechless.
Long historical links
There’s little doubt that England will be one of the best supported teams at the World Cup. And that’s not only because 40,000 football lovers are expected to make the journey from the British Isles to South Africa.
Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the local World Cup organizing committee, has acknowledged that many South Africans would rather watch England than their own national team, Bafana Bafana.
Blood links many South Africans to England. Many are first or second generation South Africans, their parents or grandparents born in England. They carry British passports. They shun local football in favor of the English Premier League, which they watch fanatically.
In fact, South Africa and England share a long history, tainted with the bitter taste of colonialism. The English settled in South Africa in the 1800s, fighting various land wars with indigenous groups like the Zulu and Xhosa, and also against the Boers – descendents of Dutch immigrants who’d arrived on the southern tip of Africa in the 1600s. After all the conflict, many English remained in South Africa. Thousands more arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, when the South African government welcomed skilled foreigners to establish big industry in the country.
History has thus conspired to ensure that hundreds of thousands of England supporters reside in the host country.
English will party … with or without match tickets
Jim and Ethel Sleith live in Johannesburg but are originally from the English city of Stoke.
“We couldn’t get (tickets to) England games. It’s impossible to get an England game. That’s obviously the team I would have wanted to see (at the World Cup),” Jim tells VOA amid the chaos of the Grand Slam bar. “(World football governing body) FIFA sold most of the tickets to fans in England, who are coming out here. So us poor buggers living here in South Africa lost out.”
Fans Gareth Collins and Shane Wilson also failed to secure tickets for England’s opening game against the United States in Rustenburg on June 12th. But, says Wilson, “We’ll be there anyway for the party.”
Collins adds, “We should win that one.” Wilson grimaces at him, “Mate, I wouldn’t be so sure. England have a history of starting badly at major tournaments.” Collins glares at his friend and asks, “If you don’t believe in the team, what the hell are you going to Rustenburg for?” Wilson replies, “For the same reasons I always go to footie games – to get hopelessly trashed and try to score with women.”
The pair’s South African friend, Tony de Kock, chips in, “Shaney, that’s a good idea. England won’t score so you’ll have to.”
England must ‘play out of their skins’
However, England did extremely well during the World Cup qualification rounds, winning all but one of their 10 matches. English fans are hoping this good form continues, to help their team to its first World Cup title since its only victory on home soil back in 1966.
But, for this to happen, England must emerge from a preliminary group including the U.S., Algeria and Slovenia. Jim Sleith says, “England will sail it.” Yet he doesn’t discount the danger posed to his team by the US.
“I watched (the U.S.) play Brazil during last year’s Confederations Cup here, and the Americans really impressed me with their discipline … They only lost 3 – 2 in the final against the excellent Brazil.”
Critics have labeled England a “one man show,” insisting that without star striker Wayne Rooney, who plays for powerhouse English club Manchester United, the Three Lions have little chance of progressing far in the competition. Even some England supporters agree. “No Rooney, no victory, hey,” comments Wilson.
Jim insists that England has got the potential to win the World Cup, “but it’ll need a lot of luck for them to beat some teams that are just more naturally gifted.” He points to Argentina, which has arguably the world’s best player in Lionel Messi, and Brazil, which includes a pack of star players.
“Brazil are definitely going to be there. (And) the Germans! If we play the Germans and it goes to penalties, we always lose!” Jim exclaims, adding, “England have got to play out of their skins, really, to win this (World Cup).”
As much as he “loves” England, Collins doesn’t see that happening. He fears “lack of teamwork” will again stymie the English. De Kock says England is “as usual, over-hyped … England’s chances are going to be the same as at every World Cup – they’ve got none! They’ve got lots of bark and no bite!”
Crime horror stories
But far removed from speculation about which team will take the trophy, news media in Britain have been filled with horror stories about crime in South Africa ahead of the football carnival. The Sleiths – regular travelers to England – say these reports have “undoubtedly influenced” many English fans to abandon plans to attend the first World Cup on African soil.
Jim Sleith says he doesn’t blame them. “The statistics don’t lie,” he quips. Every year, there are 20,000 murders in South Africa. That’s about 50 killings a day, ensuring that South Africa’s second only to Colombia in terms of an annual murder rate. The host country’s also burdened by extremely high incidences of rape and violent robbery.
“We do have a hell of a lot of crime; we have serious crime,” Jim tells VOA. “We have (car) hijackings, so (visiting soccer fans) need to know exactly where they’re driving. If they get lost, they could be in serious trouble … Anything can happen to them.” His wife adds, “I was hijacked some years ago and it’s very scary.”
Wilson says he’s “praying” that his home country’s high crime rate doesn’t deter foreign fans – “especially the females” - from visiting South Africa. He laughs, “We hope there are a lot of honeys from London, America – all those places – coming over! We’ll be here for them, hey! We’ll protect the ladies!”
Winter shock and vuvuzela haters
Besides crime, Jim has other concerns for visiting England fans. “Having spoken with English people on their way here, I’m worried some of them are going to arrive here in sunglasses, Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts expecting hot African weather, when in fact it will be in the middle of a freezing winter!”
Then again, he smiles, English supporters are “infamous” for their “barmy” behavior, which may “protect” them against the cold. “We’ve seen football supporters in the UK (United Kingdom), in the middle of the UK winter, pulling their shirts off. So, obviously it depends on how much alcohol they’re going to consume and that’s going to build up body heat, you know!”
His wife nods her head and jokes, “Some of them are going to be so drunk they’re not going to care if the match is being played at the South Pole!”
The Sleiths are also worried about the well-being of the English fans ears. Both “hate” vuvuzelas - the plastic, racket-making trumpets that South African supporters love to blow.
“At the Confederations Cup games I attended, the noise was just deafening. Terrible! I had (an) earache for weeks afterwards,” Ethel complains. Her husband adds, “We actually had tickets for the final, and I gave them away. The simple reason I gave them away was these bloody vuvuzelas! It is horrendous, the noise that those things make.”
Ethel pleads, “Please, God, let them fix that before the World Cup starts! Having said that, I’m looking forward to going to the games – with my earplugs and earmuffs!”