On Supporting 'South Africa ... Then Brazil'

Hey everyone,

As I mentioned last week, I'll be sharing my blog with some friends during the World Cup. Over the next few days, they'll be introducing themselves, laying their rooting interests/hatreds bare, and offering some predictions (some of these predictions will have to do with actual match outcomes).

Unfortunately the RSS feed for my page doesn't seem to be working, so please check in with us daily. Our first installment, after the jump, is from Anmol Chaddha, a doctoral student of sociology and social policy at Harvard who will be in Cape Town during the tournament. Here, he dissects the complicated (and rather pragmatic) support the locals are offering Bafana Bafana...


Anmol Chaddha

South Africa, Then Brazil
By Anmol Chaddha

When a shop assistant in Cape Town asked what country I was supporting, I instinctively gave her the answer I thought she wanted to hear. But she seemed thrown. "South Africa?...really?" She gave me a dubious, is-that-your-final-answer look, as if she knew something that I didn't. She is supporting "South Africa, then Brazil." These divided loyalties are apparently quite typical—they are openly displayed on cars flying both a South African flag and a second flag for England or France or Argentina.

For all the World Cup buzz here, South African fans are decidedly dispassionate about their own chances. They know as well as anyone that South Africa—ranked 83rd in the world—is unlikely to go far, and many are planning ahead for the later rounds. Brazil is their most popular back-up team, with the widespread understanding that South Africans will also rally behind any African team that does well.

This hedging is not perceived as being unpatriotic. Instead of fixating on the performance of the team, South Africans express the nationalist impulse by pulling for the country's success as the host of the World Cup. In the 6 years since it was selected as the 2010 host, SA has faced an endless stream of questions about whether it would really be 'ready' for 2010. There has been persistent doubt about infrastructure and concerns about crime. A recent BBC report raised questions about airport security, in light of rumors about possible terror threats. SA has repeatedly insisted that it is 'more than ready' to host the Cup, rejecting the discourse of 'Afro-pessimism.'

They must have been exasperated by a UK newspaper's bizarre warning of an imminent earthquake that would ruin Africa's first, cursed World Cup. (Kulula, a South African airline, took out a full-page ad in the paper in response, explaining to British soccer fans that earthquakes were the 'least of your problems'—a bigger danger to them would be sunburn and dehydration from the cheap beer they could enjoy in SA.)

It is not surprising then that South Africa seems more concerned with being considered a successful host than whether Bafana Bafana makes it out of the group round—especially in the face of longstanding rumors that FIFA had prepared a Plan B in case it decided that SA was not 'ready' for 2010. To create buzz about playing host to the world, South Africa has adopted Football Friday—since last year, ordinary folks have been encouraged to wear football gear to work on Fridays (much more fun than Casual Fridays, for sure).

I haven't seen anyone driving by with American flags yet, but maybe that will change if Obama decides to make the trip out here. (As my friend Langa asked, "So, is The Boss going to come?") But even with that, the default question seems to be whether South Africa (and its security arrangements) would really be 'ready' for an Obama visit. It probably didn't encourage much Afro-optimism when the national police commissioner himself balked: "Our famous prayer is that the Americans don't make the second round...We are told that if it goes to the second or third stage, the US president may come." It looks like Obama will just send Biden, but South Africa may yet pull out its trump card against the 'Afro-pessimists': an appearance by Mandela at the opener.

Anmol Chaddha is currently a doctoral student of sociology and social policy at Harvard, with an interest in urban political economy, racial inequality, and urban policy. He is spending several months on a well-timed research trip to South Africa that just happens to overlap with the World Cup.

His opening rant:

How come India—with over 1.1 billion people—can never manage to qualify for the World Cup? Slovenia is playing this year, and they only have 2 million people! The first and only time India qualified in 1950 (because all of their opponents had withdrawn), they boycotted because FIFA would not allow them to play barefoot. Their hopes for 2010 were dashed in a heartbreaking loss to Lebanon in the first round of the World Cup qualifiers. I guess we always have spelling bees.