At the World Cup Opener (in Fort Greene)

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06/23/2010 2:00 AM |

New York City is a big enough place that whatever idea you have right now, enough other people have it, too, to ensure a crowd. Madiba is a reasonably popular South African restaurant on DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene. At 7:45 on the morning of host nation South Africa’s opening World Cup match against Mexico, an NY1 van and antenna are outside, and by 8:30 the few bar seats are taken (all the tables have been long since reserved). The game is being projected onto screens on the bar in front and the dining room in back. By kickoff at 10, people are sardined into the bar almost too tightly to let someone through to the bathroom.

All the staff are in blue and yellow Bafana Bafana (“The Boys”) shirts, as are many of the customers. They’re hard to tell apart—everybody seems to be working this morning, and customers are relaying orders, carrying drinks, refilling water from the jugs at the bar. One waiter repeatedly jokes to his colleagues that it’s crazier than it was for the inauguration. A few vuvuzelas sound off. Someone walks by carrying a baby with a Mandela cap on. There are a gratifying number of yellow jerseys—South Africans and South Africa fans seem to outnumber neutrals there for the atmosphere, and maybe the cameras too (there are three or four film teams and a half-dozen still photographers, perhaps). They, the fans, sing along to “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika,” and it’s so stirring, you think, that here they are, at a restaurant in Brooklyn, singing along with the national anthem as it’s played a hemisphere away. Midway through, as the TV feed over his shoulder pans along the starting lineup, a youngish balding guy works his way up to the bar and asks what kinds of beer do you have.

The Jabulani is sailing on the players, and the host team, especially, seems nervy early on; the fans are on edge and the taps are kicked out even before Mexico has a goal disallowed for offsides. Covering an event like this you really want to describe a unique experience, not just nut-graf yup-we-got-the-shot cliches of joy and togetherness—but then you see a white and a black South African wrapped in the same flag, singing for the boys, and you wonder what’s so bad about cliches anyway.

When, in the second half, Siphiwe Tshabalala scores—and it’s a beautiful goal, a tight pass and a screaming finish, the ball wedged so perfectly between crossbar, post and side netting that you think for a minute it might just hang there—everyone throws their arms up and shouts, and the room is suddenly blindingly bright. (It’s all the cameras, taking pictures of the celebration.)

A few minutes later, Mexico ties it as the South Africa defense, not unlike the fans since the goal, suffers a lull in concentration. We’re all rapt, and a bit incredulous, when South Africa hits the post on a 90th-minute breakaway. When the game ends, though, the fans in yellow jerseys file out, singing and dancing and being filmed by the camera crews waiting on the sidewalk.

South Africa failed to qualify for the second round but did well to end their tournament with the aforementioned tie and a 2-1 victory over France.