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Hooray, I’m for the other team

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – I’ve experienced the passionate support of soccer fans at matches in South America, North America, Asia, the Middle East and, of course, Europe. But, I have yet to encounter soccer fans quite like the ones from South Africa.

Genuine soccer fans are a pretty tribal lot. They support their local or national team through thick and thin; through the ecstasy of victory and the inevitable despair of defeat. These fans place their hopes and dreams on one team and nothing can get them as emotional as the fate of that team.

Now, some of these fans might say they have a second team. For instance, you’ll find soccer enthusiasts around the world wearing a Brazil or Barcelona shirt even though they have no connection to the Samba boys or the Catalans. But in most cases that’s just a way of showing that they are a soccer purist, and appreciate the cultured game that these teams traditionally play.

The fact remains, even if you sometimes wear Brazil’s or Barcelona’s colors, you still don’t feel the same passion about these teams as you do about your own (unless, of course, you are from Brazil or Barcelona).

Having said all that, I believe that I have discovered a new breed of soccer fan in South Africa. In the four games I have so far attended in Cape Town at the 2010 World Cup — none of which included the host nation — I witnessed many South Africans wearing the national colors of the teams playing.

I don’t mean that they are just wearing a particular team’s jersey. Many of these South Africans are fully kitted out. At last week’s England-Algeria game I heard distinctly South African accents from many people wearing England shirts and hats, red and white face paint, and with the St. George’s cross flag draped over their shoulders. They were showing better support than most Englishmen!

It was difficult to gauge from the scoreless England game if these South Africans had the sentiment to match their wardrobe. But at the next game, Portugal’s demolition of North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as they insist on being called), there was the opportunity to see some passionate support.

This time the majority of South Africans were in full Portuguese regalia. As in the other games, most put their support behind the favored team. And as every one of Portugal’s seven goals hit the back of the net the stadium erupted into cheers and even louder vuvuzela blares. Looking around I saw that the ecstatic reaction came from everyone wearing Portugal’s colors, which invariably included many South Africans.

I sat next to a Cape Town resident at this game. Joseph Warton was one of the few who came to the match with the North Korea flag painted on his face, which he admitted was for ironic effect. We got to chatting about the South African fans and Joseph, who is 25 and white, explained that “one aspect is that people want to be more involved, so if you come to a game and want that team to win, it makes it more exciting.”

“But I think the bigger thing is that especially because Bafana (South Africa) have not performed so well in this tournament, the local people just desperately crave some success and they want to attach themselves to something bigger, so that they can ride on the back of someone else’s success.”  As a soccer fan whose support is so entrenched with two teams — England and Tottenham Hotspur, my hometown club — it is refreshing to see people go beyond that sort of tribalism in sport. I could not imagine getting excited about any teams other than my own.

Then again, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to easily switch allegiances?  I don’t know about you, but maybe I’ll just do as the locals do and while in South Africa back some other team. Brazil has a nice ring to it. Something tells me I’ll have more to cheer about wearing gold than red and white.

Yuval Lion is a former producer of “Worldfocus,”  NBC News in London, and Associated Press Television News in Jerusalem.


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