A World Cup moment
Our hosts here, the lovely Megan and Gareth, took us out on a night-time drive through Jo'burg tonight. We looked over the city from Lookout Point, but the chilly wind drove us back to the car after about two minutes. We drove around the Jo'burg CBD, over the Nelson Mandela Bridge dramatically lit up for the occasion. We headed for the heart of town, and the FIFA fan park at Mary Fitzgerald Square – but it was closed up for the night. No one walked the streets, a marked contrast to the scene earlier in the day. It felt and looked like downtown Detroit, to be frank, and we were all a bit bummed by that.
At Melrose Arch, an upscale area of hotels, restaurants and a giant screen the World Cup concert was showing live from Orlando Stadium, home of the NSL's storied Pirates side. We sat and had dinner, Gareth telling us a story of his days as a young under-20 soccer international, of playing alongside Bafana Bafana star Steven Pienaar and scoring a bicycle-kick goal in Malawi that helped put South Africa into the African youth championship. South Africa won 4-1, the pro-Malawi crowd eventually switching their allegiance to the visitors and saluting them. The very surface they played on was bouncing up and down with the noise, he recalled, until it turned into a rolling sea of green underfoot.
“When it was over, I tossed my shoes into the crowd and I'll never forget the face of the kid that caught one,” he recalled. “He started crying and it was like a cartoon, the tears just sprayed off his face.”
On Friday, Gareth will be in the crowd at Soccer City Stadium, watching from a seat instead of down on the field. He retired from pro soccer here four years ago. I asked him how he was feeling.
“Excitement – absolute, absolute excitement,” he said.
I asked him what he was looking forward to the most.
“Singing the national anthem,” he answered quickly.
Megan nodded, then added - “Madiba,” she said simply, for Mandela, making a rare appearance on Friday at age 91.
Up on the big screen, Toronto's K'Naan came on. It was time for Waving Flag. The entire Melrose Arch contingent joined in. The place rolled. A few weeks back, I interviewed K'Naan in the airplane as he arrived with the World Cup Trophy at Pearson International Airport. He was a wonderful fellow, thoughtful and honest and plain-spoken. And there he was, the Somali-born man from Rexdale now. Canada made it to the World Cup.
K'Naan did the most kick-ass, emotional Waving Flag I've ever heard. In tony Melrose Arch, the whole place kicked ass, one exuberant guy jumping up on stage to dance in front of the giant screen, everyone else content to sway to the music and shout along with K'Naan. Amid a sea of South African flags, a Mexican supporter waved his standard and sang along (one of the more vocal sides at any World Cup, they are well supported here but have grown uncharacteristically quiet here, perhaps a bit awed already at the overwhelming support for their opening-night hosts in yellow and green).
The silent downtown, the vibrant scene beaming in from Soweto, the great company of Megan and Gareth - and hanging over it all in the air, a real sense of history. In the cosy, mostly run-of-the-mill world of sports reporting, I don't think I've ever felt history as strong as tonight, and Friday, when Gareth and 88,000 others sing the anthem with Nelson Mandela in the house, it'll be positively spine-chilling. I don't think I'll ever cover anything as globally historic as this again.
I turned to Cathal. “It took us two days, but we've finally had our first World Cup moment.”