*JUNE 18, 2010
Beyond the Horns, A Beautiful Game
South Africa's reaction to a red card is a real testament to its culture.
By FOUAD AJAMI
'It's noisy, it's energy, rhythm, music, dance, drums. This is Africa, we have to adapt a little."
So said Joseph S. Blatter, the president of FIFA, the world soccer organization, and a citizen of Switzerland. He would not "Europeanize" an African World Cup. The controversial plastic horn, the vuvuzela, that has turned watching soccer into sheer hell, is here to stay.
It was inevitable that the tacky plastic horns would be given sanctity and pedigree. In one telling, these instruments are the modern-day version of the Kudo horn blown to summon African villagers to communal meetings. In another, the vuvuzelas emerged from the culture of the townships and a history of oppression.
Soccer hooliganism (with a huge edge there for British fans) should be envious. It never had that sort of ideological justification. The soccer "rowdies" were on their own. The world wearied of them, and in time drew limits on their behavior.
The authenticity of the dreaded plastic horns—like the historical legitimacy of all such cults—is of course false. The vuvuzela has nothing to do with Africa's villages. Its history dates back, well, to the summer of 2009, when the Confederations Cup took place in South Africa itself. The horns turned up, and they were to alter the culture of the game. FIFA's leaders now pay tribute to a contrived tradition.
Those who can look past the vuvuzela—you can't hear over them—will find the enchanting game: the Americans emerging with a draw out of a match with a soccer powerhouse, the English team. You can look for the stars of the game to check if they live up to their legend. There is Ronaldo from Portugal, Messi of Argentina, Kaka of Brazil perhaps returning to form, and the gifted Dutch striker Robin van Persie.
My favorite match is likely to remain North Korea's encounter with the masters of the game, the Brazilians. For the first half, the North Koreans stayed with the Brazilians and frustrated them, their tenacity an interesting contrast to the free form and flamboyance of the Brazilians. The North Koreans lost, but it was close, a 2-1 score. And when a North Korean scored his team's goal, I must confess I was rooting for the underdogs. Anything to spare these players the wrath of Kim Jong Il.
In the stands, one could only be charmed by a contingent of North Korean supporters. No rhythm there. It was a regimented crowd, wearing identical red jackets, hats and soccer scarves, banging wooden clappers. How they came to the Cup—there are rumors they are hired Chinese actors—from the most hermetically sealed of places must be a tale all its own.
In our received wisdom about soccer, the teams play to the stereotypes of their national identity. We think of the art and flair of the Brazilians (they are forever the inheritors of the great Pele), of the efficiency and precision of the Germans, of the exuberance of the African teams that have stepped into the game in recent years.
These stereotypes sometimes lead us astray. The Italians alternate unpredictably between brilliance and indifference. We think of a distinct French style but we should know better. It is the children of the French colonial empire, young men from Algeria and Ivory Coast and Cameroon, that brought to France a new age of soccer greatness. And that quintessentially German pattern of play? Children of the Muslim diaspora, Turks and Tunisians, now play under German colors.
There is no need for South Africans to claim the vuvuzelas as their distinct contribution to the culture of soccer. More impressive to me was the grace of the South Africans—players and spectators alike—when the referee red-carded the South African goalkeeper and sent him off during a match with Uruguay.
Forgive the stereotype, but a South American crowd would have rioted in the face of a call of that kind. There is high culture and there is low culture: This grace was South Africa telling the world something about itself and its temper.
Mr. Ajami is professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.