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Nick Fitzhugh is in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, working with Pete Muller to produce a documentary series about the cultural significance of soccer in black South Africa. He’ll be blogging about the World Cup, and the life surrounding it, for us here at Intelligent Travel, and today shares his experience at the USA vs. England match last Friday.

After flying from Washington, D.C., to Johannesburg, South Africa

over the course of 24 hours for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, what would you

do if offered a ticket to the USA vs. England soccer game? Would you

take it? Yeah, so would I. What if you had to pack into a car and drive

three hours further to get there and you knew you wouldn’t get home

until 3 a.m.? You probably wouldn’t blink at the thought. I didn’t.

The journey is like a dream. Literally. Of the other four passengers

in the compact car, two are siblings, one a cousin of the siblings, and

one a friend of all three.

“I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, women and directions don’t

mix!” Dumi, the driver’s younger but much bigger brother was sitting in

the back seat and acting like it.

“You didn’t know which way to go either!” Namzomo protested.

The whole car laughs.

Outside,

faraway mountains to the north break up from tundra-like plains into

the dirty and darkening pink of the dying day. The radio buzzes faintly

in the background just above the tire and engine hum. I drift in and

out of consciousness, my head bumping against the window.

As we approach Rustenburg and its new stadium, our car slows

to a crawl. Cars everywhere are flying USA,

England, and South Africa flags (our ride, full of South Africans and one

American, has only a South African flag taped to the hood). We

wait in the slow line while the English-flagged cars cut us off and

take to the shoulder.

For most, it’s no-holds-barred on the road. But upon arrival we’re all

family. Parked side by side and head to toe by the guardrails and in

the median, the doors open to vuvuzelas and song and we pile into the

buses that shuttle the masses to the stadium.

Count on the English to keep it rowdy and keep it real. We ride with fans already cheering Steven Gerrard, the powerful midfielder for the English team, who probably deserves such idolatry more than many. “Stevie G, Stevie G. You beauty, Stevie G!” they shout. The

Americans remain silent and secretively hopeful, like a Texas Hold ‘Em player

whose just gone all in with a pair of fours.

The entrance gate is like a bad case study of crowd dynamics. The

first checkpoint is narrow, yet an ocean of fans funnel

through it as two hapless women pat us down. A good fifty percent of us appear to be screened with nothing more than a

congratulatory pat on the chest or back.

Next checkpoint. This time there are quite a few more workers and

they’re checking tickets. My group surges ahead as I drop to a knee to shoot a few photos. Trying

to catch up, I point to my friends and my ticket that one of them is

holding. That seems to be more than enough.

I’m allowed to pass.

Third and final check: A wand

which is waved in front of me without a blip and then behind me. A

solid beep this time as it traverses my National Geographic camera bag.

I receive a questioning look.

“What’s in the bag?”

“A bunch of camera gear.” I hold up my camera. “Should I open it?” But she has already moved on to the guy behind me.

I stick my ticket into a machine. The barcode scans. I’m in.

Photo: English fan at the US v England World Cup Match

“Come on ENGLAND!”

England listened. Within minutes of the kickoff, it is 1-0 England.

Not a good start. On the other hand, since the balance of American vs.

English fans is overwhelmingly weighted on the English side, the

atmosphere is instantaneously electric. Flags wave. Faces shine. Horns

blare. And voices struggle to measurably add to the chorus.

Our group, meanwhile, is having a little difficulty taking our seats. They seem to be occupied by a couple of Englishmen.

“It’s a football match, mate! Haven’t you ever been to a football match before!? Who cares about seats!”

We’re okay. We have seats even if they’re not our own but all we can

do for the guy whose seat we have therefore overtaken is shrug and

point to the true culprits. He too is English though and it’s not long

before he’s recruited some stadium security to help the other errant

Englishmen find their correct seat assignments.

Apart from the early goal against them, the U.S. plays well. The

ball movement is quick and precise. Mistakes and bad touches are rare.

We press England constantly and actually largely dominate one of the

world’s soccer powerhouses! I’m impressed. We’ve come a long way since

the days of cool and quick but unskillful Cobi Jones. Clint Dempsey

plays out of his mind and it’s not long before he has scored an

equalizer, albeit on a shot that absolutely should have been saved.

Photo: US flag draped on a fan at the World Cup

“USA! USA! USA!”

We’re alive and suddenly it’s a game. Suddenly there’s real hope!

As hotdogs and chili dogs and sandwiches sell out and fans switch

to the liquid Budweiser diet, I wander the stadium snapping photos and

shooting video on a newly acquired telephoto lens and manage to get

some recognizable shots of Wayne Rooney.

“Come on ENGLAND!”

There’s anxiousness in the cry this time and it shows on the field.

It’s on. The English bring it the second half. The U.S. defense is

tested again and again. It’s nail-biting. With every minute though, our

hope grows. Onyewu is a pillar of reliability even through injury. Luck

appears to also be on our side.

Three whistles blow! The game is over! While not exactly dejected, the English are not happy.

“What bollux! What a terrible display of football!”

Some English, on the other hand, are actually complimentary of the

Americans. As we funnel back out of the stadium I hear one echo my own

earlier thoughts by saying how far the United States has come. World

Cup champs? Perhaps not. But then again, “you never know with America…”

How true.

Nick Fitzhugh is the founder of Glimpse.org, a

platform for young people to share their stories from abroad, he has

turned his attention to professional storytelling and independent

filmmaking. This story and all of his work can be found on his website,
redfitz.com.