PRETORIA, South Africa – U.S. fans rejoiced today at the American team's extra time goal, by man of the match Landon Donovan, that secured a 1-0 win over Algeria. The U.S. team wins their C group and advances to the final 16.
If the experience of U.S. soccer fans is anything to go by, South Africa’s hosting of the soccer World Cup has so far more than fulfilled expectations.
Among the long-term benefits that South Africa hopes to reap from hosting the first World Cup on African soil are increased investment and tourism. It could be a tall order for a faraway destination that is plagued by a high crime rate, but based on interviews with American fans at the United States’ last group game against Algeria in Pretoria, they’ve been conquered.
“Without exception, the people of South Africa have been welcoming, generous, helpful, gracious, understanding, just lovely beautiful people,” said Michael Martaus, 53, a Cleveland sales and marketing executive who had dreamed of attending a World Cup ever since seeing confetti rain down on the victorious Argentinean team in 1978.
As a group, American visitors are an important one for South Africa. Last year, Americans ranked second in terms of overseas tourists to South Africa behind British visitors. Outside South Africa, more World Cup tickets have been sold to Americans than to residents of any other country.
The main concern for many visiting fans was security. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with about 50 people killed each day. Organizers have addressed the issue by mobilizing 40,000 members of the country’s police force to assure the event’s security.
“We are aware of it,” said Martaus of South Africa’s crime situation. “It didn’t stop us, but it concerned us.”
Martaus and his sister Terry from Seattle said they feared for the worst when they got lost one night in the notorious industrial area around Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium. After wandering around for almost two hours, they finally ventured inside a bar to ask for help and found a customer who put down his beer to offer assistance.
“He said: ‘I’ve lived my whole life in this neighborhood. I know exactly where you need to go,’ and he took us there by car,” Martaus said.
Terry Martaus, 51, said that she still has reservations about going to fan zones at night but that the perils of driving on the left side of the road far outweigh the dangers of roaming around on foot on South Africa’s streets.
Brandon Ayers, 26, who came to South Africa with his brother and a childhood friend, said their experience has been “more than we could have ever expected” and that he was amazed by the country’s landscapes and “the nicest people we’ve ever met abroad.” Their World Cup trip has taken them to Cape Town and Durban and diving with sharks. They heard about safety issues beforehand but weren’t overly concerned, he said.
“We knew what it was, but we figured we were three guys together and we were not going to be the stupidest of tourists,” Ayers said.
His brother Nate’s calculation was that the World Cup’s beefed-up security made it as safe a time as any to visit the country. “And it’s not the first time we’ve used our passports,” he said.
Grant Wahl, a senior reporter for Sports Illustrated who lived in South Africa for several months ahead of last year’s Confederations Cup, said he “looked forward to coming back here.” He said he hasn’t been a victim of crime himself during his time in South Africa but that some of his acquaintances have. Nevertheless he said he found the press coverage in some European countries too alarmist.
“Overall South Africa has done a great job hosting this tournament,” he said.
Van Jakes, of Atlanta, who set foot in South Africa for the first time Tuesday night, said jacked-up airfare and hotel prices were not enough to prevent him from offering the perfect graduation present to his 22-year-old daughter Leigh, who started playing soccer at age seven and has played on Northwestern University’s varsity team.
“It’s a chance to be part of history,” said a beaming Leigh Jakes.
Feelings have been mutual. Ngoni Nyambuya, a 35-year-old Zimbabwean who lives in Johannesburg and works in Pretoria, said he fell in love with Team USA during its visit to South Africa last year.
“They played during the Confed Cup and they put up a good show so I started supporting them then,” he said. “Now I know the players; I know the coach; I know everything.”