“We are going to surprise the world!”
The statement, coming just days before the World Cup, could only be about football – or soccer as it is known in certain parts of the world.
The man speaking is wearing the yellow and green T-shirt of South Africa’s national team, nicknamed Bafana Bafana, so I can guess who the “we” is that he is speaking of. He’s sitting at a bar in northern Johannesburg with a big TV screen playing a “friendly” match between Switzerland and Italy that ends in a draw.
South Africa hasn’t been this optimistic and buoyant in years.
Since I arrived in South Africa, in 2006, the country seems to have gone from corruption scandal to high-profile trial in an endless tale of self-destruction.
In April, after the murder of a racist white politician that prompted threats of a “machete race war” and summoned up surprising levels of sympathy from white folks who shared few of the racist politicians ideas, South Africans seemed to think their country was on a fast path to Zimbabwe-hood.
One South African columnist, Aubrey Matshiqi, summed up the country’s mood perfectly by calling it “hysterical pessimism.”
Now, thankfully, the mood has swung the other way.
Maybe there is something about "the beautiful game."
I had finished my chips, as French fries are known in certain parts of the world, so I began to ask people at the bar about who was going to win the World Cup.
Rogan, an Afrikaner college student with spiky auburn hair, says, “Right, I’ll give you my final four.”
James, a white college student recently transplanted from Zimbabwe, says he loves the fact that football seems to be bringing people together, and he would love to see Bafana Bafana go all the way to the final. But his final four includes Spain, Argentina, Netherlands, and England.
Sipho, the man in the yellow Bafana shirt, would also love to support Bafana.
“They have come a long way,” he admits, noting that South Africa had just won a “friendly” against Denmark, and they remain undefeated for the past eight weeks.
But asked for his final four, he doesn’t make place for Bafana Bafana.
He doesn’t even make room for Brazil.
“Oh, you like Brazil?” he asks me. “Okay, let’s talk about the final eight.”