A World Cup Experience

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After about 80 years of waiting, the waiting says the South Africa Local Organizing Committee Chairman, is over. The waiting indeed is over for Africa, as the World Cup begins in South Africa, a month-long tournament bringing the best football nations in the world under the African skies for an experience of a lifetime. An African country, Egypt first participated in the World Cup in the 1930s, and now an African country, South Africa hosts the world. At the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, the flight took off without any incident, but after 20 minutes in the air, the pilot announced that there had been a minor hitch with the aircraft and he had to return to Lagos. What? An omen? It turned out this was a minor matter, someone had forgotten to close the luggage carriage opening properly and the aircraft computer system had picked this up. Still three frightened guys chose to disembark. They practically jumped out of the aircraft. Only God knows how many aircraft accidents had occurred just because someone failed to do a little thing that proper diligence could have taken care of. But why disembark? What is life if not the courage that we bring to it? An open luggage compartment -sounds like too much of a small matter to stand in the way of a World Cup experience…

There had been many complaints in Lagos about the crassness of the guys at the South African embassy. Treating visa applicants shabbily and refusing to give them a visa, after collecting fees that are not refunded. Ordinarily, the South African embassy is unpopular with Nigerians. There are too many Nigerians wanting to go to that country either on holiday, or for medicals, or for conferences. And now it is the World Cup. And the queue of applicants has just lengthened. Nigerians are probably the largest number of Africans going to watch the World Cup. The official delegation alone is over 1, 000; from the Federal Government – close to 400, not to talk of state governments, local government chairmen, the retinue of wives and girlfriends, representations from corporate Nigeria and private individuals.

Those who will not watch the opening are booked for the semi-finals or the finals. Nigerians go everywhere. Wimbledon. Roland Garros. US Open. Australian Open. It is not just a matter of population. There is something about us. We just love life. Our zest for it is immeasurable. There is that something about the Nigerian that drives him to want to explore and conquer. And they are all here. You run into them here and there. "Ol’boy what are you doing here?" Well, what are you too doing here? At the Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, the night before the World Cup, I saw Nigerians. They had come from Lagos, London, the United States and even Australia. Imagine if the World Cup had come to Nigeria. But could we have really hosted the world? Do we have the capacity -with our epileptic power supply, and the lack of ambition in the corridors of government? We hosted the COJA seven years ago and the Under-17 just last year: many of the contractors who helped to facilitate the events are yet to be paid, and yet the official records show evidence of money having been collected by state officials. When Nigeria hosts a world event, it loses money, loses prestige and angers its own people.

But that should be no reason why South Africans and Ghanaians (imagine Ghanaians who used to slap the streets of Nigeria as common shoe-shiners until Nigeria decided that Ghana-Must-Go!) should treat us shabbily. We are still convinced we are the giants of Africa, not so? We only need intelligent leaders who can start proving that. The South Africans at the Embassy in Lagos may be overwhelmed, and they will have to learn to treat visa applicants with respect, and do something about their attitude, but their folks at home seem to be better prepared, coping with the sudden onslaught of visitors. More then 200, 000 persons are in South Africa to watch the tournament within the first week. Many more are coming. The World Cup has given South Africa an opportunity to rebuild infrastructure. Oliver Tambo International, Jo’burg wears a bright, shining look. It’s been spruced up. Three aircraft landed about the same time. But immigration procedures were swift. Nobody asked any silly questions: the reason is obvious enough; and there were no requests for bribe. If Nigeria hosts the World Cup, our immigration officials and policemen will consider it boom time, and extort money even from Obama if they have a chance to do so. Some young people carried trays of can drinks just outside immigration. I grabbed one. The luggage for the Nigerian flight was delayed (not up to ten minutes) but there was an apology. That luggage compartment, again, now a bit difficult to open.

It is wintry. The weather is cool. People coming from the West may enjoy this weather, but I miss the heat of the Lagos weather already. Nigeria has many International Airports, South Africa two, but Tambo International alone is better than all our airports in Nigeria put together. "Ayobanes" says the man taking us to the hotel. "Ayobanes," he says is a local slogan for the World Cup, and it means "something cool, extraordinary or great". Yes, it is a great moment to be an African. Quite a convivial fellow. He talks about the history of his country, Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid. He talks about the gap between the black poor and the white rich and hopes that someday white men and black men in his country will be able to do business together and live in the same quarters. "Come to Soweto, before you leave", he says. "I was born, bred and buttered in Soweto," he adds. "Soweto is where the action is, it is where I live." Someone warned that we should not take him up on his invitation, and that we would avoid Soweto, Hillbrow and Alexanda because South Africa with all its fame is a very violent society. It is like Nigeria after the civil war. Definitely, this is not a perfect society. It is a country in transition, struggling to manage the wide economic disparities that still generate social tension. But it manages its crisis well. It has a larger number of good people and a system that works. And that is all that is required to start the building blocks for a good society. The world media in the build up to the World Cup has played up all the positives about the Rainbow nation. In Nigeria, if a goat gets stolen, the whole world raises an alarm. The world no longer trusts us. The South Africans have Mandela and his image is all over the World Cup. Nigeria cannot boast of any such living figure whose leadership binds everything together. When the names of Nigerian leaders are mentioned, the average Nigerian is likely to release a volley of insults.

Many of them are here. They were at the airport, also rushing into town to enjoy the World Cup. Why can’t they make a little effort to reproduce what they see abroad at home? They will watch the matches and go home and continue with business as usual. That is what makes Nigeria such a sad case….

It is now the day before the World Cup. The waiting is over. Some guys who went out spent four hours in the Johannesburg traffic. The city is agog with excitement. In Soweto, at a pre-event concert, there is a mix of colours and human energy. Musical superstars are on the stage, performing and dancing and driving up energy levels. Angelique Kidjo, John Legend, Femi Kuti, local artistes and here comes Shakira, driving it all up with that her "come and commit" ever-rotating waist. Lord, have mercy! At the Nelson Mandela Square, there is similar frenzy. Young men and women, armed with the Vuvuzela, making sounds.

Back at the hotel, the Honduras national team is also in this hotel, security everywhere…the build up is so intense you would think nations have come to South Africa to fight a war. And war it is. So much is at stake. National pride.

At the Bar, one guys says we should stay up all night. He won’t be able to sleep because he is just too excited. Another fellow offers an analysis of the Argentina team and says Nigeria may be able to spring a surprise. We could lose but we will not be disgraced. Someone else said Nigeria has a squad at the World Cup but not a team. But the World Cup is about surprises. On Super Sports, they are showing the Ivorien team arriving, Didier Drogba’s broken arm in a sling, the one and only Drogba whose ego is bigger than that of his country. John Travolta has also arrived in a jet. The media is focusing heavily on the South African team which plays the opening match with Mexico. I thought of all the Vuvuzelas that will show up at the stadium, and the noise that thing makes. Not to talk of Baba Sala goggles which seem to be popular.

D-Day. The great moment for Africa. This World Cup is not just about South Africa. It is about Africa and the Africans are here: from Ghana, from Sudan… So touching. We set out early, but the traffic is heavy on the way to Soccer City where the South Africans have built an exquisite stadium known locally as "The big Calabash". It does really look like the biggest and the most beautiful calabash in the world! The chaotic traffic about three kilometers to the stadium nearly dampens the spirit, but someone says we should not hold that against the South Africans, it should be expected. It gets worse and people jump out of their vehicles, most of which have their rear view mirrors draped with the South African flag, and begin to trek. But we soon make it. Everything is now on television. The eyes of the entire world are on South Africa. It is Africa’s moment but it is South Africa’s biggest moment since the end of apartheid. In the stadium, sitting among the South Africans, you could feel the energy of a nation, the patriotism of its youth. I look around for the Nigerian flag. I can’t find any in the stands. But there is Femi Kuti, singing at the World Cup, draped in the Nigerian green-white-green! There is no Nigerian referee in the FIFA list. But who will use a Nigerian referee these days? They don’t have the training or the exposure. South Africa has not disappointed itself. A beautiful and successful opening day! Supremely world class. A few years ago, some Nigerians had hoped that Nigeria would host the World Cup by 2010. That was the dream expressed in the Vision 2010 document. But this is 2010, and Nigeria is nowhere near that dream.

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