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OK, it's time to fess up: I haven't posted a column in a couple of weeks because I went to South Africa for the World Cup. I worked soccer's big event as a reporter two decades ago when I was with The Baltimore Sun, but this time, I went strictly as a fan. Both experiences were unforgettable, but this one easily was the best.
My itinerary included three games – the United States against Slovenia, the United States against Algeria and the Netherlands against Cameroon – and I was fortunate. The US games, watched by millions back home, were intensely dramatic up to the final whistle, and the Netherlands-Cameroon game featured the craziest sports crowd I have ever seen. I sat in the stands with fans from around the world as they dressed in costume, blew their vuvuzela horns and rooted for their teams. It was a worldwide Mardi Gras.
The sound of the vuvuzela, a fixture of South African soccer, has been scorned around the world by purists for being so excruciatingly loud and annoying and, in their opinion, ruining the game. Having experienced it first-hand, I beg to differ. Were they loud? Yes. But I didn't find them the least bit annoying. To the contrary, I felt they added to the celebratory spectacle of the first major sports event to be held on African soil. In a word, they were cool.
(You can check them out yourself when Manchester City and Inter Milan play their international "friendly" match at M&T Bank Stadium on July 31. Knowing that tens of thousands of soccer fans brought home vuvuzelas from South Africa as souvenirs, I can guarantee there will be plenty on hand at that game.)
Having spent countless Sundays in NFL stadiums over the years, I found myself comparing the experiences. In some ways, they were the same. Each venue had its own character. Ellis Park, the landmark rugby stadium where the movie "Invictus" was filmed, felt like Fenway Park. Walking into the shimmering new stadium in Cape Town, I felt like I was boarding the alien craft in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
And the fans, well, they seemed familiar in many respects. They painted their faces, dressed in crazy hats and animal costumes, and stood for long periods. Soccer fans root passionately. Yet they don't root any harder than fans of the Ravens or Steelers. As the game unfolds, the noise rises and falls in the stadium, music blares, and some fans are happy and others glum, depending on what's happening on the field.
What really struck me was how well everyone got along. When the US played Slovenia, I sat right by a group of Slovenians. When the US played Algeria, I sat right behind a row of Algerians. Opposing fans were thrown together that way throughout the stadiums. And the vast majority smiled, shook hands and enjoyed the game. A gracious Algerian turned and congratulated me when the US beat his team in the final minutes.
Did everyone behave perfectly? Uh, no. When the Slovenians scored first against the US, a few of their fans sprayed beer at their neighbors, including our group, no doubt delighting that Americans were among those getting drenched. Then they taunted us when their team went up 2-0. But what goes around comes around. They sat down, shut up and finally just left before the final whistle as the US rallied to tie in the second half.
But for the most part, a wonderful sense of cooperation reigned. I found myself thinking this was the perfect attitude for any sports fan to bring to any game – root like crazy because you care, but give those on the other side room to root because they care just as much.
I understand that fans of rival "club" soccer teams such as Chelsea and Manchester United in England probably go at it more fiercely, as fans of rival NFL teams do, but still, it was great to see people on opposing sides remain gracious and not get mean-spirited or personal. When I think back on my World Cup experience, I will think of that uplifting atmosphere long after the blaring sound of thousands of vuvuzelas finally stops echoing in my ears.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.