Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Most times, first impressions always count. After thirty days across five cities and a thousand and one pleasant memories afterwards, one can confidently say that the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa certainly lived up to its hype as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After a five and a half hour flight from Lagos Murtala Mohammed International Airport, to Oliver Thambo Airport, Johannesburg on Sunday, June 13. At Johannesburg airport, my 2010 World Cup memoirs began. I met with Nigerian music superstars, Alariwo and Sunny Neji, who had also just arrived. After exchanging pleasantries and taking pictures with them, the South African airport cab driver welcomed me to his country with a five hundred and fifty rands (eleven thousand naira) fare for a less than forty minute drive to the guest Lodge situated at Randburg, a prominent area in the heart of Johannesburg. On a later check, I discovered that the fare could have been at least one hundred and fifty Rands lesser. Well, that was my unofficial welcome. The next day, in the company of other Nigerian journalists, I went to get my FIFA accreditation badge at the Ellis Park stadium. The process was smooth and it was less than five minutes, a different scenario to Nigeria 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, where the accreditation process in most of the centres left much to be desired.

With all the news about the rate of crime in South Africa plus the unfortunate experience of some foreign journalists’ just days to the World Cup kick-off, I deliberately refused to go into the city alone until three days after my arrival, when I visited the Supermarket and went sight-seeing to get used to my new environment. With that, the fear factor was effectively silenced. My Nigerian colleagues took a cue and also were bold enough to explore Johannesburg beyond the now routine private taxi shuttle between the guest lodge and Ellis Park stadium.

Reliving any World Cup experience could make a book series. So, let’s just stick with some highlights of the good, the bad and the ugly. Of course, the memorable experiences were more numerous - meeting honest, hardworking Nigerian professionals, discovering a Nigerian restaurant where one could get weekly doses of eba, pounded yam and egusi soup or vegetables, travelling to watch the Super Eagles play in Bloemfontein and Durban, meeting current and ex-football stars, international media icons like CNN’s Pedro Pinto and ESPN’s Gabriel Marcotti, networking with people across the world, getting Arsenal and Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas to sign an autograph, exploring South Africa’s social life and the popular FIFA Fan Fests, having an exclusive chat with the renowned Danny Jordaan (the mastermind behind the success of South Africa 2010), daily witnessing how much football ignited passion, inspired patriotism and united a multi-racial and cultural society, 
witnessing the heroic reception accorded the Black Stars of Ghana on the streets of Soweto, and of course watching the 2010 World Cup matches live, including the Spain versus Netherlands final in Soccer City - these were some memorable experiences. I also met a lot of friendly South Africans and amazing football fans from across the world during my stay, including one football loving American who had attended five successive World Cups starting with USA 1994.

The good thing about South Africa was its cultural, organisational and infrastructural delight. Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban or Capetown was almost as good as being in any of the notable European cities; organised traffic, twenty fours electricity (except for the few hours cut I witnessed once due to South African Power company ESKOM’s bid to manage high electricity consumption rate during the World Cup), the speed of internet browsing, and ease of shopping and transportation. Although, every country has its vices and law breakers, South Africa, unlike Nigeria, is a well structured and regulated society. On numerous occasions, fellow Nigerians lamented when they saw the level of organisation in the South African system and way of life. After further trips and experiences, it was a depressing to admit that Nigeria, acclaimed giant of Africa, had a lot of growing up to do if it was to catch up with South Africa in terms of infrastructural development.

Although there are many hard working and respected Nigerian professionals in South Africa, there were still some whose actions greatly malign the image of the country. But like is common with humans, some South Africans make the mistake of assuming most Nigerians are scammers, 419ers or drug peddlers. Before one of the matches at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, I had an interesting interaction with a cheerful South African family. The moment I mentioned that I was Nigerian, the man quipped, “Oh, do you have pills (drugs)?” And the daughter blurted out “Daddy!” in a bid to reprimand his sarcasm. But, ‘Daddy’ was not done yet. He continued, looking at me slyly. “I will tell you anything you want to know, but I won’t be giving you my bank account details,” That got me. I had to ‘rebrand’ him about Nigeria being a great nation and Nigerians being good people. In the end he made me see understand that, although South Africans unfairly generalise Nigerians under the tag of 419ers and criminals because of a minority group, the Nigerian government seems not to be doing much to publicise or showcase the good things about the country to the rest of the world. “Your government should talk more about these good things so that the world would see your country differently. See what the World Cup has done for the image of South Africa,” he pointed out. I totally agreed. Afterwards, we threw some more banter and took pictures together. Dora Akunyili should have been there to watch me ‘rebranding’ Nigeria for good.

The bad news was that the crime stories were not fabricated. During a stroll with a friend outside Ellis Park stadium, we sighted a suspicious looking man monitoring our movement. Luckily, a policeman was around the corner. So, I walked up to him and explained my fear. “Don’t worry, he cannot get near you. We Johannesburg police carry arms,” he said smiling, as he showed me his weapon and then continued with controlling the traffic to the stadium. Although, the South African police and security operatives should be commended for their efforts, the reported crime rates were as real as the thieves who stole the photograph equipment and laptop of an American journalist in the media shuttle; as real as the passengers who robbed a Ugandan journalist of his accreditation badge, expensive phones and a sizable amount of money on his way home; and as real as the touts who tried to rob me at Johannesburg Park Station, on my way back from the Germany versus Spain semi-final match played in Durban on July 7. On alighting at Park Station, I decided, on intuition, to pull off my accreditation badge. Just a few minutes later, two park touts came from nowhere and blocked my path. They both asked me to give them a hundred Rands each for ‘drinks’. I was miffed. I brought out all the coins, cents, maybe about 10 Rands in all, handed it to them and made to proceed. They stopped me on my tracks and one threatened to shoot me if I didn’t give them more money. My laptop, digital camera and other essentials were in my bag. So, on a second thought, I channelled my anger to my feet, shoved them off and dashed into the closest building, a supermarket. From afar, they watched me while haggling beside other buses. When I explained what happened to the Indian owner of the store, he was understandably annoyed. “You should have punched him in the face,” he reasoned. 
Luckily, I got the store’s security guard to escort me ten minutes to the nearest taxi station. “They are just lazy, hungry black men who don’t want to work to make decent money,” the security man said. Out of appreciation, I handed him ten rands. He hugged me grateful. At least, there were still honest, hardworking black South African men out there in crime-infested down town Johannesburg.
Although South Africa’s crime rate looked indeed scary, but it was not the prediction of doom and gloom that most of the Western media projected for the World Cup. “Many of the countries who raised this issue actually came to me to apologise personally, to say that, ‘you know, we were wrong about a lot of things in your country, because we had a wonderful time here. The people of the country have been wonderful, warm, embracing and celebratory, and just made us feel so welcome,” Jordaan told me days before the final match on July 13. Making sure South Africa hosted an excellent 2010 World Cup had been his mission for the past sixteen years and he handled it not only professionally and productively, but patriotically as well.
Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Sani Kaita certainly qualify for the Ugly. For reasons best known to them, they denied Nigeria a chance of extending their stay at Africa’s first World Cup. The next day after the match against Greece, there was much talk in the South African media about 1,000 death threats to Kaita. It made cover headlines in some South African newspapers. Peterside Idah had to clarify the issue with the international media a day to Nigeria’s make or mar match against South Korea. It was a tense press conference atmosphere. “In Nigeria, when someone says, ‘I go kill you oh,’ it does not literally mean that he wants to kill you. That person is just trying to tell you that he is really angry with you,” Idah tried to explain to the bewildered international media and FIFA officials. 
Everyone in the hall had a good laugh about it and after the Eagles’ press conference, the joke was now on Nigerian journalists present. As we walked out singularly or in groups, the foreign journalist would look at us and go “I go kill you oh,” and another round of laughter followed. But, Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s blunder in front of goal (arguably the miss of the tournament) the next day June 23, the joke was all but lost. As a result of the Eagles’ ouster, many of my Nigerian colleagues made up their mind not to stay a week longer in South Africa. But I vehemently refused every Kaitastrophic or Yakubutrocious happening from spoiling my World Cup party. Eighteen days later, I was live in Soccer City on July 11, lapping every bit of a golden World Cup experience as Spain lifted the FIFA World Cup trophy for the first time. 
It's certainly a privilege to be part of the pages in the golden books of history.

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