One golden goal leaves a city in gridlock and holds the host’s fans spellbound
It was probably the kind of performance we better get used to in this first African World Cup but it may just take a little time. It is not often that you see a great city paralyse itself twice in one day.
First, Johannesburg produced a traffic gridlock that might have been borrowed from some Doomsday novel about where life is heading in the 21st century. Then, one of the township heroes launched the great tournament with a goal that would have graced any age of the football planet.
Africa being Africa, the sweep of emotion was not likely to stop there – and nor did it. When Simphiwe Tshabalala sent the beloved Bafana Bafana national team into the lead in the opening match with Mexico yesterday the cheers were so loud they might have been heard down in the Cape. You thought maybe, finally, all the doubt about bringing the World Cup to such a tumultuous, and precarious place, might just be paralysed – permanently – by the force of sheer joy.
But then the superb quality of Tshabalala's goal, a searing cross-shot from the left, was still registering among 84,000 thousand fans who had spent hour upon hour anxiously inching towards the Soccer City stadium, when the Mexicans, nobody's fools who have made a habit of fighting their way through the first group rounds of World Cups, struck back.
The Bafana defence, which had at times looked desperately nervous under the huge weight of expectation, lost their concentration and the man of Barcelona, Rafael Marquez, stole behind them to equalise. Yet South Africa might still have made a triumphant start – and given themselves a serious lift in confidence before their games with France and Uruguay if striker Katlego Mphela, a star of the Mamelodi Sundowns, had been a fraction cooler in his finish. Instead, he could only hit the post and bring a convulsive sob to the vast stadium.
It meant that the South Africans must continue to move from joy to despair and back again for some time -– and also survive, with the Fifa organising body, the severe embarrassment of shocking traffic chaos, so bad that a journey of a few miles to the stadium was taking upwards of four hours.
In one way, though, it was the least of the pain. Nelson Mandela, frail and ailing as he nears his 92nd birthday, had decided to go against medical advice and come into the winter air to say a few words to his nation and the world. Instead, he was left grief-stricken by the news that his 13-year-old granddaughter, Zenani, had been killed in a car crash while returning home from a pop concert in Soweto on Thursday night.
It was left to the South African president, Jacob Zuma, and Sepp Blatter, the Fifa chief, to attempt to fill the sudden emotional void. Zuma said, "unfortunately there is a tragedy in the Mandela family but this game must go on – and you must enjoy it", while Blatter claimed, "the spirit of Mandela is in Soccer City".
Danny Jordaan, leader of South African football, was rather clumsily accurate when he said that for only the second time in its history the nation had come to a standstill. The first time was when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, the second was when the excitement reached a peak before the opening ceremony and action. Even as Jordaan spoke, Johannesburg was slowing down, first to a crawl, then a dead halt.
Yet, plainly, nothing could dim the enthusiasm of the crowds who thronged the streets and packed into the open- air theatres in front of the giant television screens. The desire for success in the eyes of the world is huge, no doubt, but among the South Africans of the townships there is also a mood of celebration which does not require an audience from abroad.
It was enough, it seemed, for them to be just a part of the greatest of sports events and see their team perform at the highest level. If Bafana Bafana can build on the best of their play – and some of it was sweeping and skilful enough to remind you they are coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira, a World Cup-winning Brazilian – there will be no talk of chaos and confusion down the years. Much more readily recalled will be the moment Tshabalala seized on his chance with masterful control and sent the pulse of his nation racing as rarely before.
In the moments before the kick-off one of South Africa's most accomplished players, Everton's Steven Pienaar, solemnly crossed himself. There was no doubt about the nature of his prayer. It was that he would be able to play his part in the great day of his nation. A product of a Johannesburg township, Pienaar played with a fine spirit and some impressive touches.
He, like so many of his countrymen and women, seemed keen to prove that he could march beyond something more formidable than a traffic jam. He seemed to be saying that no-one should doubt this World Cup will, somehow, roll on.
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