FREEDOM KICK: For many South African children, soccer is their only hope to escape a life of poverty.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The FIFA complex here is a swishy maze of a mall, all upscale shops and unrelenting fluorescent lights, attaching the hotels to each other before spilling out into Nelson Mandela Square, which is right now dominated by a Sony tent — a 3D World Cup viewing pavilion — and circled by tourist restaurants. A large statue of Mandela stands sentinel; a person of six feet or so comes up to his crotch.
Centered around a triad of high-rise luxury hotels in a suburb called Sandton, this labyrinth connection means that it's possible to wake up, make your way to FIFA headquarters, eat in one of the many restaurants on the square, and return to your bed, without ever seeing the light of day. It shows on some of the faces. Those helping in making the largest sporting event in the world function the way it does are cloistered, in part by duty, in part, I think it's fair to say, by choice.
Leaving the complex, it's easy to get lost. Walking down President Street, a long, busy avenue of bargain shops, warehouses, and grand, sand-colored municipal buildings in the western part of Johannesburg's city center, my travel companion and I pass storefronts selling bright blankets draped in the doorways, an apothecary possibly, with vials and jars of liquid and powders, a massive butchery, blood on the curb, frayed chunks of raw meat on the sidewalk. The International Restaurant and Action Bar looked forbidding. People are selling shoes, huge piles of used boots and heels and sneaks and sandals heaped up on sheets, which makes me think of some sort of memorial exhibition about genocide.
Johannesburg — which once shouldered the mantle of highest crime rate in the world, and where machete attacks and murder were predicted by foreign press in advance of this, FIFA's crown jewel — has put on its best face, but tension is still in the air. Whether the barriers are meant to keep us in or the city out, it's hard not to feel as if we're living in soccer's Green Zone.
Change of scenery
I'm in South Africa because my boyfriend, affiliated with the World Cup as a journalist, extended the invitation, a generosity impossible to pass up — the cost of a plane ticket would land me a free place to stay and the possibility of going to some games.
I flew first to Durban, a resort city on the eastern coast, arriving in time for the last day of group action, with Portugal and Brazil playing to a nil-nil draw. Hotels and casinos rose above the beach and boardwalk; the white and airy Moses Mabhida Stadium looked about to float away.
When I reached Johannesburg four days later, the differences were striking. On the pitch, the Round of 16 was finishing, and half of those who had advanced through the group stage had already been sent home. My journey north had brought a change in scenery, as well, from the frivolity of Durban's vacationland to the urban sprawl of South Africa's largest metropolis.