Expats in Johannesburg rally around U.S. team
JOHANNESBURG -- It is a grand old flag -- a gift from a family friend -- but for 11 years as an American living in South Africa, private equity investor Greg Durst has not dared wave his impressive 9-foot-by-5-foot Old Glory farther than his own porch on the Fourth of July. Like many expatriates overseas, he's been laying low in the face of anti-American sentiment. But for Yanks in these parts, the spirit of Independence Day has come early in this age of Obama with the U.S. soccer team's improbable "miracle on grass" win leading to Sunday night's upcoming sold-out Confederations Cup final against the fancy-footed Brazilian powerhouse. "Suddenly, we're all Americans again," says Durst, who hopes to wave his Stars and Stripes -- a newly hot commodity -- at Coca-Cola Park stadium (formerly Ellis Park) if he can scrounge up tickets for the game.
U.S. fans are expected in abundance at the final on Sunday. (Christopher Koepsel/GettyImages)
"Suddenly" is in fact the word of the moment, as Americans scramble for tickets from personal connections (a toughie, but it can be done) and make last-minute plans for impromptu viewing parties.
The Americans here are not going to be caught alone again, like so many were Wednesday night, watching the semifinals at home expecting a U.S. fizzle. By the USA's second goal against Spain insuring victory, Durst was whooping so loud his dogs began to whimper from fear. Others learned secondhand or from cheers of "U.S.A. U.S.A" rising from restaurant bars, as South Africans rallied around the incredible showing from the scrappy upstart "terriers," as some have taken to calling the American team.
The underdog win was so unexpected that Janine Brown -- vice president of the expat American Society of South Africa based in Johannesburg -- pulled together a viewing party only mid-Saturday, sending out e-mail invites with the heading that needs no explanation: "U.S.A. U.S.A Help Cheer Team U.S.A. to Victory." A big crowd -- including many sports newbies -- is expected to gather at the Giles Restaurant pub with its three large TV screens. "It's really important that we all come together to celebrate," says Brown, who was one of those stuck in a hotel room on business watching the "miracle" alone. "It was depressing," says the New York transplant. "Even if we don't win, it's amazing America has gone this far, and we're going to cheer together."
It's good to be an American again, but it's even better to know someone with tickets. One of the hottest bashes in town is being thrown by the local office of the American-based law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf. The evening will begin with snacks at the office for a select group of VIP clients, then a shuttle to the stadium's park and ride. Then the group will jump one of the minibus "Soweto Taxis" known for raucous music and maverick driving to get to the game, says firm managing partner Greg Nott. "It's a bit of madness," says Nott, who is in fact South African, not American, like many in the group, which will fly Stars and Stripes in profusion. (Yes, they stock American flags at the office for the Fourth and Thanksgiving.)
That of course is the question: Will South Africans root for the United States because Brazil beat their national team, Bafana Bafana? Or will South Africans favor the Brazilians anyway for their much-admired panache? U.S. Soccer team press officer Michael Kammarman says it actually does matter, especially considering the formidable opposition. "This is one of the biggest games the United States has ever played in," Kammarman said. "The positive energy from the fans gives you something extra; it gives you a lift."
No one knows for sure how the cheering will go, though it is certain the noise in the background will sound like a swarm of angry bees on the rampage. That's the by-now infamous hum of fans blowing the South African vuvuzela, the three-foot long plastic trumpet modeled on the traditional kudu horn. While international media executives have complained that the drone is mucking up their broadcasts, FIFA officials are holding firm (for now), supporting the distinctive trumpet buzz as the sound and spirit of Africa, and a likely feature of 2010 World Cup games.
Though the U.S. government neither supports nor opposes the vuvuzela as a matter of official policy, U.S. Consulate press attaché Sharon Hudson-Dean advises a position of "if you can't beat them." "You have to buy one and you have to blow it," says Hudson-Dean, who was palpably ecstatic about the U.S. team's success. "If you have one, it's not annoying. If you don't have one, it's very annoying."
Whether blowing the horn or cheering another nation's team, it fits into the spirit of soccer that South Africans feel deeply about the sport that helped unite their country across bitter racial divisions after the birth of this new democracy with the 1994 end of apartheid. That spirit is reaching Americans around the world, too, like Fertice Miller, an international commodities trader based in Cape Town who is hearing from his old Morehouse College buddies back in the U.S., asking to stay with him for 2010 World Cup games in the historic seaside city. "Now," he says, "everybody wants to come stay at my place."