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World Cup Perspectives: For Whom Are South Africans Rooting?

Mark Kozek is a contributing writer for SB Nation Soccer. Having recently returned from a trip to South Africa, Mark shared his thoughts on his experiences at the 2010 World Cup. The following was written prior to the tournament's semifinals.

Whereas modern South Africa has a sense of continental pride, its cultural ties to Western Europe remain strong. Observing whom locals support for a World Cup match gives us an unfiltered glimpse into the current state of racial affairs.

During my return flight from South Africa where I attended six matches including half of the quarterfinals, I watched a documentary about the 2006 World Cup in Germany. One of the things that caught my attention, both from the film and from my visit to Germany four years ago, was that the stadiums seemed to be filled almost completely with people from the two countries on the field and not so much with local soccer fans unless of course, Germany was playing.

This World Cup was quite the opposite. Almost all of the fans at all the matches I attended were South Africans (and white South Africans for that matter). On the one hand, they showed great zeal. For casual fans, they all made the effort to dress like they were from whichever of the two countries they chose to support. This usually included a team jersey, a scarf, a vuvuzela in the appropriate team colors, a wig or beanie, and face paint. I give them credit for going “all out” in this respect. However, during the quarterfinals, the teams they chose to support offers a rather interesting perspective on the state of South African racial relations.

First Quarterfinal Match: Brazil vs. Holland This was the most interesting of the four quarterfinals in terms of local fan support. I watched this match at the Fan Park in a casino/mall complex called Monte Casino (not to be confused with the FIFA Fan Fests). Brazil has a large and loyal fan base that follows them around the world. In addition, Brazil almost always gets a lot of local fan support, no matter where they play. For example, I attended the Brazil-Chile second round match at Ellis Park. Everyone in my section was Brazilian, and not only were there a lot of Brazilians at the stadium, Brazil had most of the local support too. However, against Netherlands, at the Monte Casino Fan Park, the fan support amongst locals was divided amongst color lines… white South Africans overwhelmingly supported Netherlands, while non-white South Africans overwhelmingly supported Brazil. Needless to say, at Monte Casino, most of the people were thrilled by the outcome.

Second Quarterfinal Match: Ghana vs. Uruguay On the other hand, practically everyone I saw either at the stadium or around Johannesburg was rooting for Ghana, independent of their ethnic background. I was at Soccer City, and easily 90% of the stadium wanted Ghana to win. This is probably the only match of the elimination round where the fans had a true emotional connection with one of the teams on the field. The stadium’s silence and utter disbelief when Gyan missed the penalty at the very end was overwhelming. Of the six matches I attended, this one had the largest proportion of non-white South Africans in the stands.

Third Quarterfinal Match: Argentina vs. Germany. Again, I watched this match at Monte Casino Fan Park, and almost all of the locals there (most of whom were white that day) wanted Germany to win. Our driver brought his wife and even she was decked out in Germany paraphernalia. I was with a group of South Americans (who on principle support South American countries first). We were all dressed in Argentina colors, and this was the first time that fans actually made snotty comments after the outcome of the game. I heard snips like “Don’t cry for me Argentina” as I walked to the restroom or as we walked towards the vans to drive to Ellis Park.

Fourth Quarterfinal Match: Paraguay vs. Spain Following the previous trends, Spain had the overwhelming support of fans at the Ellis Park Saturday night, although since Germany played on the same day, most of the fans I saw outside Ellis Park were decked in Germany gear. In Spain’s defense, I noticed visible, Spanish, cheering sections at the stadium. Whereas Spain had most of the local backing, I couldn’t say how disappointed the fans would have been had Paraguay emerged victorious.

So what does this all mean? Based on the games I attended and some of the people I spoke to during my visit to South Africa, I can make the following observations about fan support.

1. Non-white South Africans will probably support teams in the following order: South Africa, other African countries, Brazil, or not show up.

2. White South Africans will support teams in the following order: South Africa, other African countries, the “big” Anglo/Germanic Western European countries. [I’d love to get comments from anyone who went to the Germany-Ghana first round match.]

3. The Americas and Asia, sorry, but you won’t get much love in South Africa, unless you’re Brazil.

As we look forward to the semi-finals today, since most of the locals in attendance probably will be white South Africans, we can expect most of the fans in Green Point Stadium and Durban Stadium cheer for Holland in the first match and Germany in the second. From a soccer perspective, this would make an exciting World Cup Final. But sociologically, it begs the question, how far have things truly come since 1994?

Mark Kozek just returned from South Africa where he kept a personal travel journal but didn’t have the internet access to upload it as frequently as he wanted to. He is thrilled that he didn’t have to go in for jury duty today and is invoking voodoo witchcraft so that he doesn’t get called in until after the semi-finals at the earliest.