A Deafening Joy Opens South Africa's World Cup

In this handout photo provided by Rick Stevens, Mexican and South African football fans celebrate the opening match of the 2010 World Cup between South Africa and Mexico at the Sydney International FIFA Fan Fest opening ceremony on June 11, 2010 in Sydney, Australia.
In this handout photo provided by Rick Stevens, Mexican and South African football fans celebrate the opening match of the 2010 World Cup between South Africa and Mexico at the Sydney International FIFA Fan Fest opening ceremony on June 11, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Rick Stevens/FIFA Fan Fest via Getty Images

The vuvuzelas are the happy soundtrack of South African soccer. They're about joy, and the main emotion I felt today is that South Africans seem downright thrilled to be hosting the event.

I fell asleep last night to the sound of the vuvuzela. I awoke this morning to the sound of the vuvuzela. And this afternoon I sustained one direct vuvuzela blow to my left. It hurt.

But after watching the South Africa-Mexico opening game of the World Cup with a few thousands very happy locals in Johannesburg's Mary Fitzgerald Square -- she was the country's first woman union organizer, and she had an excellent nickname: "Pickhandle Mary" -- I'm already willing to lay off.

As anyone who's turned on ESPN or read a newspaper or listened to a certain radio operation knows, whither-the-vuvuzela is a World Cup story that's already been bleated to death. Yes, being surrounded by the ubiquitous plastic horn is like being trapped inside a tuba being played by an elephant. Yes, you have to shout to be heard by someone standing next to you. Yes, people are selling miniature vuvuzelas that emit a high-pierced shriek. But I say enough.

The vuvuzelas are the happy soundtrack of South African soccer. They're about joy, and the main emotion I felt today is that South Africans seem downright thrilled to be hosting the event -- far more outwardly joyful than residents of any other country in which I've attended a big sports event. In the square today, the third biggest cheer came when South African President Jacob Zuma appeared on the giant screen during the opening ceremonies at the Soccer City stadium and said, "This is the African World Cup." The second biggest came a few moments earlier when Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, said that while Nelson Mandela couldn't attend the game (his 13-year-old great-granddaughter was killed by a suspected drunk driver), "the spirit of Mandela is in Soccer City."

The loudest cheer, of course, came in the 55th minute of the game, when South Africa's Siphiwe Tshabalala struck a left-footed rocket past diving Mexican goalkeeper Oscar Perez. At that moment, the vuvuzelas went silent -- because fans were too busy screaming to blow their own horns. They thrust them instead into the air like torches, they waved them forward and back in a rhythmic dance.

Mexico tied the game with about 10 minutes left to play and, thanks to a South African shot that struck the post and bounced away harmlessly a few minutes later, the game ended a 1-1 draw. But no seemed unhappy. And the music of the World Cup kept playing in the streets as the crowd dispersed.

"They lost," one South African fan turned to us and said as we walked back to our car. "Imagine what it would sound like if they had won."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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