Welcome to South Africa. Welcome to the 2010 World Cup. Welcome to a land and a tournament full of contradictions.
For a week now I have been stationed in the northern Johannesburg resort of Craighall Park, billoted with a charming South African travel writer and tour guide by the name of Sally Roper at her Buckingham guest house.
Sally and her staff are everything that is good about South Africa. Nothing is ever too much trouble for them. Everything is achievable. The visitors and their happiness are paramount.
They are mines of information and inspiration in a country and on a continent hosting the World Cup for the first time.
They know the ropes. They have lived through the most traumatic times in a country that prides itself as the cradle of civilization and is trying to forget its past as the creators of apartheid.
They can tell you where to go and how to get there, where not to go and how to avoid it.
They are proud people. They take great pride in their national soccer team, the Bafana Bafana who played so well against Mexico in a 1-1 draw last Friday night and scored what will surely be the goal of the tournament.
On the day of the match Sally’s employee of the century, never mind the week, a lovely lady called Nkele, arrived from her township two hours away as we sat down for breakfast.
She had a yellow Bafana Bafana jersey on her back. A yellow hat on her head. Two South African flag stickers stuck to her cheeks.
Her employer Sally is white. Nkele is black. They were as one on Friday morning as the excitement of the day ahead began to grow, and I began to get what this World Cup is all about for the ordinary South African people, even for those who cannot afford the ludicrous $80 ticket price FIFA want to charge them.
“Today I finally feel we belong to the world,” beamed Nkele.
“When I left my township this morning everyone was on the streets with their Vuvuzelas and their Bafana Bafana colors.
“We belong now. No matter what happens to the boys in the World Cup our people are now on the world stage. It is like the real unification of our country, of all our colors and all our cultures.”
It was only a small breakfast room in a Johannesburg suburb, but there was a real sense of occasion when Nkele produced those words.
The same words came to life on the hour long journey out to Soccer City in Soweto as the queues grew and the noise from their beloved Vuvuzelas reached a crescendo.
By the time we got to the stadium and witnessed what it meant to these people to host this tournament, we realized that this World Cup is about so much more than football.
Those of us who take football for granted are slowly starting to realize that. And appreciate it.
In the days since Saturday I have been to Pretoria and Rustenburg and Johannesburg to watch football matches.
I have seen America out play the English midfield and get the equalizer they deserved in the most bizarre fashion.
I have laughed from afar at France’s misfortunes, watched in amazement at German efficiency, marveled at Messi, enjoyed the Ghanaians and their dancing on Sunday night, and witnessed New Zealand and their half-Irish striker Rory Fallon come back from the dead in Rustenburg on Monday.
But ask me about my favorite World Cup moment to date and it won’t be the Robert Green howler against America, or even Tshabalala’s wonder goal for South Africa against Mexico.
I won’t even bore you to death with tales of journalists being robbed, and the constant need to look over your shoulder everywhere you go in Joburg.
No, my stand-out moment from my sixth World Cup finals as a journalist came in the dining room of a small guest house last Friday morning when the warmth and enthusiasm and belief of a 42-year-old South African by the name of Nkela made this all worthwhile.
For those few minutes football was indeed a beautiful game, and I finally got why the tournament is here on African soil for the first time.
So thank you Nkela and thank you Africa -- so far it’s been a pleasure.
WORLD CUP SIDELINES
MONEY: FIFA may have a billion euros on reserve in their Swiss bank, but money is tight round these parts.
The South African players who performed such heroics in their opening draw against Mexico have each received a bonus worth just over $2,500.
Compare that to the $25 a day some workers at the match stadia are getting, and you can see why the locals are green with envy.
And just to put it in even more context, every mother in South Africa gets about $30 a month in government support for every child under the age of 18.
Sadly for many women, this children’s allowance is their only source of income.
ALTITUDE: Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up. Soccer fans will know all about Robbie Savage, the former Blackburn Rovers and Wales midfielder who currently plays for Derby County.
Robbie’s a bit thick to put it politely, and proved it on his arrival in South Africa where he’s working as a pundit.
After a 5k jog with one of his producers, Savage decried those who are complaining about the altitude problems at the World Cup, claiming he didn’t know what they were moaning about.
It’s just a pity that Robbie’s training run was on the beach in Cape Town -- which happens to be at sea level and not at altitude!
EQUALIZER: A few minutes after Steven Gerrard’s opener for England on Saturday night, Team USA won a corner which got the American fan next to us very excited. “Get ready for the equalizer,” he urged us with one of the tournament’s more memorable quotes. The equalizer didn’t arrive then but it did arrive just before halftime -- and even the partisan U.S. fan found it hard to believe.
JUDGE: The whole of South Africa is behind their team at this World Cup -- including the judicial system. Johannesburg judge Willem van der Merwe has been turning up for work all week with a Bafana Bafana jersey under his legal cloak. Wonder is he any good on the offside law?
NOISY: Vuvuzela fan George Hamilton has put his money where his mouth is, and quite literally at that. The legendary RTE commentator was spotted leaving Rustenburg on Saturday night with not one but two of the traditional South African horns. Go blow that thing George.
HUNGRY: Former Ireland boss Big Mick McCarthy was spotted with three Big Mac hamburgers on a tray outside the media center at Ellis Park, but the Wolves manager was adamant he was minding two of them for fellow BBC pundits. We believe him.
HISTORY: Memo to South African radio -- it was the Republic of Ireland who beat Italy at USA ’94 and not Northern Ireland, as your commentator stated during the Italy-Paraguay game here on Monday night. Just thought I’d clear that up for them.
ENGLAND: Hand of Clod. Green Fingers. Stars and Tripe. Yanks 1 Planks 1. Tainted Glove. Worst Howler ever. Hapless Green. Nightmare Start. Don’t you just love the headlines when England take to the World Cup stage!
GREEN: South African police had no trouble handling thousands of England fans in Rustenburg on Saturday night -- pity the same can’t be said of their goalkeeper Robert Green and the ball!
WORLD CUP HEROES
The great Eamon Dunphy and I had a bit of a disagreement at a recent World Cup bash over Germany’s World Cup hopes. I said they’d do well. He said, as he repeated on RTE on Sunday night, that they are crap. So guess who’s very happy that Germany stuffed Australia 4-0 on Sunday night? They’re right up there with Argentina as the best team in the tournament so far.
WORLD CUP VILLAINS
Over a hundred thousand people have signed an online petition to ban the Vuvuzelas, those African horns, from the World Cup. Have they no sense of belonging? This is an African World Cup on African soil. The Vuvuzelas may be annoying as hell and they may be noisy, but they are very much a part of African football folklore. Thankfully FIFA said again on Monday that they have no intentions of banning them from this World Cup.