(For those keeping score at home, in the 2006 World Cup, Nike sponsored fourth-place Portugal, Adidas second-place France and third-place Germany, and Puma had Cup winners Italy.)

The North Korean Mission to the United Nations was unable to clear up the matter, though an official who spoke to the Phoenix but would not identify himself (lest he soon find himself in a forced-labor camp for the rest of his life, no doubt), indicated that he had read the same media reports we had and believes that Erke is the team’s sponsor. He added that some of his colleagues from “the capital” also believe that Erke is sponsoring “my team,” but adamantly said that the news is unofficial.



The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer’s governing body, may be doing its best to erase any South African mark on the World Cup.

The tourney’s theme song is by Colombian pop queen Shakira. And Coca-Cola is the official soft drink — the Americans, it seems, always find some way to make their presence felt.

But a nation that feels just a little prickly about outsiders imposing their will cannot be entirely silenced — not with the vuvuzela, South Africa’s fantastically annoying plastic horn, at the ready.

Played by fans from the opening whistle to the close of the game, the vuvuzelas’ deafening sound has been variously compared to the less than melodious stylings of a swarm of wasps and an elephant farting.

The locals have been tooting it up at domestic matches since the early 1990s. But the horns bleated their way into the international consciousness only last year at the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for the Big Dance.

Visiting players said they couldn’t communicate with one another. Television networks complained of drowned-out commentary. Among those who have called for a World Cup ban on the horns are a Japanese soccer executive, a Dutch coach, and a Spanish midfielder. (One can now expect the Japanese, Dutch, and Spanish teams to endure particularly loud bouts of elephant flatulence during their matches.) But the vuvuzela has survived the international effort to push it out of the stadiums.

And the home team, granted an automatic spot in the tournament as host country, is hoping it will provide a lift.

A lift, though, may not be enough. Experts say that South Africa is, quite possibly, the worst team in the history of the World Cup.

Witch doctors!
If the vuvuzela cannot cover South Africa in glory, perhaps a little magic will do.

Ritual and religion have a strong hold on sportsmen the world over: sumo wrestlers purify their ring with salt; French sweeper Laurent Blanc kissed goalkeeper Fabien Barthez’s bald head before every game during the team’s glorious World Cup run in 1998; Red Sox right fielder JD Drew seems to really, really like Jesus.

But as father-and-son team Steven and Harrison Stark suggest in their preview of the big tourney, World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, African soccer’s reliance on magic is “of a different order.”

Among the incidents compiled by the Starks:

* In 1969, officials unearthed a skull at a stadium in Kinshasa, Congo, meant to curse the opposition.

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