As the drama of the later rounds of the World Cup in South Africa unfolds, hundreds of thousands of football fans continue to enjoy the host nation’s hospitality.
Prominent among the hordes of overseas visitors in South Africa for the soccer spectacle have been supporters from the United States. Even when their team hasn’t been playing, they’ve packed stadiums to watch others in action – always highly visible in their shiny, striped red, white and blue suits, star-spangled top hats and long, snow-white Uncle Sam beards.
The US team’s exit from the tournament after last week’s defeat by Ghana has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of many American fans in South Africa, who are determined to remain here to soak up the atmosphere.
“Plenty of Americans have not just gone to US games but have attended as many games as possible and will continue to do so,” says Catherine McMahon, a member of Sam’s Army, as the vociferous American fans are collectively known.
She says some American fans bought tickets for as many as 10 World Cup matches, including the semifinals and final. Many – including McMahon - attended the competition’s opening game on June 11 between South Africa and Mexico at Soccer City stadium near Johannesburg.
“At first I thought (the ticket) was a little too expensive, and then I just said, ‘How can I not go to that?’ Everybody was just so excited; it was so fun,” McMahon recalls.
Americans ‘brighten’ World Cup with ‘passion’
World Cup organizers say US football supporters have so far bought more than 160,000 tickets - more than the combined totals of traditional soccer powerhouses England and Germany, and second only to South Africans.
McMahon herself is “somewhat surprised” – given that the US is still recovering from a deep recession – that so many American football lovers made the long, expensive journey here and spent so much money on match tickets.
“Maybe it’s just because it’s such a long trip, and once you’ve invested that much time and money, you just figure – what’s another few hundred dollars (for more tickets) as long as you’re already here?” she ponders.
But, whatever the reasons behind the large American presence at South Africa’s World Cup, the country’s people are grateful for it. “Americans are the best tippers. They even tip when I know the service hasn’t been so good!” says Johannesburg sports bar waitress, Glorious Motaung.
US fans have also packed South African memorabilia stores to buy local soccer paraphernalia, including the jerseys of the host country’s national squad.
Yet the Americans have impressed their hosts with far more than their willingness to spend dollars.
“I love their attitude,” says Joe Pinheiro, a South African football fan who attended two matches involving the US. “When unfair calls were made against them, they moaned and swore for a few seconds but then immediately carried on singing and backing their team. They’ve just brightened up this event with their passion and goodwill.”
Thozamile Nkosi, who attended the Ghana versus US game, also praised the American visitors. “Their attitude was, ‘We are going to celebrate no matter what’ and nothing got them down; they even partied with Ghana fans after they lost.”
South Africa, a land of contrasts
McMahon says US fans feel “privileged” to be at Africa’s first ever football World Cup, and weren’t put off by media reports of rampant violent crime in South Africa ahead of the tournament.
The Washington DC-based first-time visitor to the country said she’d “noted” stories of “street crime and carjackings and robberies” before the competition, but that they didn’t concern her.
“I’ve traveled around a lot (as an aid worker) so I sort of know that that stuff gets exaggerated,” she said. “I haven’t seen anything (in terms of crime) since I have been here.”
McMahon, though, has come to realize the problem is real. “That you can see just by looking at people’s houses in Johannesburg,” she says. “High walls, and you see the electrified (security) wire everywhere ...”
McMahon remains “amazed” though by the “level of development” in the host nation’s big cities, such as Johannesburg. “There’s six-lane highways, and there’s a huge downtown of high-rise buildings, and it looks like almost a European city,” she explains.
But the contrast between this “sophistication” and Johannesburg’s sprawling squatter camps, McMahon says, is “stark … The income disparity (between South Africans) definitely seems dramatic. The suburbs in Johannesburg are very nice, but then just close by you see all these tin shacks.”
‘I’ll never forget South Africa’
McMahon says there’s “plenty” she’ll remember from her “first but hopefully not last” visit to South Africa
On her second day in the country, in the city of Pretoria, she found herself caught up in the host nation’s mass euphoria ahead of the World Cup’s opening match. South Africans hit the streets at noon, screaming, dancing and blowing their vuvuzela trumpets in a show of support for their team.
“It was thousands of people, and completely spontaneous … I have never seen such a spontaneous outpouring of joy!” McMahon exclaims. “I will never forget South Africa and its people.”
In particular, she says, she’ll “always remember” South Africans’ concern for the well-being of foreign football fans. “I’ve – unsolicited – been asked by half a dozen people – ‘Are you having a good time; are you having any problems; is anyone ripping you off; we really want you to have a good time!’”
McMahon will also remember South Africa’s “fantastic” World Cup stadiums. “I heard some people say Ellis Park (in Johannesburg) was really old and rundown, but I thought it was a really nice stadium, and well designed … Soccer City was a great stadium – really beautiful.”
McMahon says another memorable event for her was her first taste of South African boerewors, or ‘farmer’s sausage.’ “A little gamey; but I liked it; a little spicy,” she laughs.
Wish for soccer to be ‘major’ sport in US
Besides the opening game, McMahon attended all the US’s group matches and was “ecstatic” when her team topped Group C ahead of more favored England.
Her happiness has, however, been tempered by US’s loss to Ghana, thus eliminating it from the tournament … But not curbing McMahon’s enthusiasm and belief that soccer will someday soon gain its “rightful place” as a “major” sport in the US.
“My friends are writing me and telling me the World Cup is playing in more (US) bars ,and people are skipping work to watch the games, and everybody’s talking about it,” McMahon says. “Soccer is getting bigger and bigger in the US, and you can see that by the very many American fans that have made the effort to get to South Africa.”