TONY Hawks, a comedian best known for writing a book about playing tennis with the Moldovan football team, once remarked that his ideal stand-up gig would be on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Hawks argued that all a tennis player needed to do to leave the crowd in hysterics was shrug their shoulders or pull an amused face during a break in play.
Sepp Blatter could probably run any Wimbledon wannabe comedian close in the easy gig stakes, though, if the World Cup’s opening ceremony in Johannesburg, ahead of the game between South Africa and Mexico, was anything to go by.
The FIFA president didn’t need any amusing anecdotes or wry one-liners to whip up the enthusiastic crowd at Soccer City. Once the tournament’s well-judged opening ceremony was complete (it was visually engaging, with going OTT or on too long), Blatter managed to elicit wild cheers just by shouting: “The World Cup is in Africa! The World Cup is in South Africa!”
This may be as controversial as Sepp gets if his Twitter feed is anything to go by. Yes, Blatter is on Twitter. And his tweets (or should that be his blatts?) have been extremely diplomatic so far. There is nothing to suggest he will master hashtags or withering putdowns about Andy Townsend before the end of the tournament. He hasn’t even managed a LOL yet.
“I’m honoured to meet the players and wish them good luck before the game,” Blatter blatted. “Here I am with Steven Pienaar.”
Pienaar has had rather more to say for himself in the build-up to the World Cup, but then his tale is worth any number of retellings.
The Everton midfielder grew up in the township of Westbury, just outside Johannesburg. His childhood home was in an area scarred by the legacy of apartheid, with high crime and unemployment rates and a gangster culture.
As a child, Pienaar suffered racist beatings and was shot at with ball bearings. A friend of his was shot dead. He credits his mother Denise for keeping him on the straight and narrow, when it would have been easy for him to go off the rails. His football ability offered him the chance of a different life.
“Where do you think you would be now if you weren’t a footballer?” Pienaar, asked that question by a Radio Five Live reporter before South Africa’s opening game, thought for a moment, and replied: “In jail, probably. Or maybe even dead.”
In his Daily Mail column this week, Pienaar touched up the role sport has played in bringing down racial and cultural barriers in a country once split by apartheid. “We have come through a lot as a country, and this World Cup means everything,” he wrote.
The World Cup can benefit South Africa. And the reverse is also true. A good run by the host nation always does wonders for the atmosphere at a major tournament. South Africa, the lowest-placed nation in the FIFA rankings ever to host a World Cup, will do well to get beyond the group stage. But they gave themselves hope of doing so with a fighting performance against a strong Mexico side.
Having held on until half-time, South Africa went in front through Siphiwe Tshabalala’s thunderbolt 10 minutes into the second half. Soccer City went wild. “It was like 1995 on steroids,” said ITV pundit Francois Pienaar. It should be made clear he was comparing the atmosphere to the celebrations that greeted South Africa’s Rugby World Cup win under his captaincy, rather than referring to any alleged drug abuse by Britpop bands.
Perhaps they scored too early, as the hosts began to concede too much ground after that, and were punished for some dozy defending which allowed Rafael Marquez to equalise 11 minutes from the end. “The vuvuzelas fall silent,” said commentator Peter Drury, as vuvuzelas sounded around the ground.
Drury, like Alan Green over on Five Live, seemed to be angling for a South Africa win in the hope that it would ignite the tournament. He almost got it as Katlego Mphela hit the post for the hosts late on, but Drury, Green and Bafana Bafana had to settle for a 1-1 draw.
“I was incredibly moved by the atmosphere,” tweeted Sepp afterwards. “I felt that the crowd, like me, really wanted to get the World Cup started.”
Well, that is what all those footballers are in South Africa for.