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Blowing the vuvuzela for South Africa in Russia

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Many South Africans made the journey to Russia to watch the World Cup, but few as high profile in the sporting world as Raymond Hack, FIFA Players Status Committee Chairperson, and former legal advisor to the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee.
by JULIE LEIBOWITZ | Jul 05, 2018

He would be the first to say that while there have been many upsets in the 2018 FIFA World Cup so far, it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for watching the games. Quite the contrary.

“This is my seventh World Cup, and the standard of football is by far the best and most exciting this year,” Hack says.

Referring to the surprises in the tournament so far, he says the gap between the top teams is not as great as it was before. In 2010, the top teams were clearly Spain and Holland. In 2014, it was Germany.

This World Cup seems to be anybody’s game. Germany, ranked number one in the world, was ousted unceremoniously in the Group stage last week, losing 2-0 to South Korea.

Hack describes the German team as “past its sell-by date”.

“In 2014, Germany thrashed Brazil 7-1,” he says. “But, now, Brazil is a much stronger, more creative team. Football is like that.”

Spain experienced a similar drubbing on Sunday, losing 4-3 to Russia in a penalty shoot-out. As one commentator put it, “boring the opposition into submission” just didn’t cut it for the former champions this time.

Argentina fell to France on Saturday – ending former Golden Ball winner Lionel Messi’s hopes of ever actually holding the golden trophy – and Cristiano Ronaldo walked off the field shaking his well-coiffed head after Portugal lost 2-1 to Uruguay.

Both teams relied too much on one player – just like Egypt placed its hopes on Mohamed Salah in an overall disappointing performance from the team, according to Hack.

The team that stands out the most is Japan, who lost 3-2 to Belgium on Monday night in a nail-biting match that Hack believes was one of the best of the cup so far. “Japan was 2-0 up in the second half, but as they say, ‘It ain’t over till the lady sings’.”

There are some other prominent South Africans in Russia. Former Human Settlements Minister and businessman Tokyo Sexwale met up with Hack at the start, and as a fluent Russian speaker, was helpful in initiating him into the language and culture. Representatives of the South African Football Association and Premier Soccer League have also attended matches. They came all the way to Russia “to watch good soccer and support the African teams”, says Hack.

Africa’s hopes did look good for a millisecond, before Egypt was eliminated by Russia, Nigeria lost 2-1 to Argentina, and Senegal was disposed of “on the basis of discipline rather than soccer”, according to Hack.

The Senegalese team, nicknamed the “Lions of Teranga”, had tied with Japan on points, goal difference, and goals scored, leaving the decision up to FIFA’s controversial Fair Play Conduct Points. Senegal had more yellow cards than Japan, and so was sent packing with the continent’s hopes in its suitcase – a bit like being judged on attitude rather than performance.

Shock and awe aside, the atmosphere in the stadiums is fantastic, Hack says. If there are any empty seats, it’s because the game is being played in a city with no interest in either contender. Unlike South Africa, where if a game was being played at Royal Bafokeng in Rustenburg, people would adopt a team and support it, World Cup supporters “don’t seem to adopt teams, they support their chosen country and that’s it”.

Football fever hasn’t infected the entire country the way it did in South Africa in 2010. “Our vibe was ten times better,” Hack says, but he points out that the Russian organisation, security, and transportation is superb.

Even people on the street are helpful, and a few of our guys have taught them to blow vuvuzelas. “People have never seen a vuvuzela before. They think it’s funny,” Hack says. Croatia and Columbia’s fans have adopted the instrument, using it to create a “festival atmosphere”. It seemed to work on Sunday night for Croatia, who drowned out Denmark 3-2 in a dramatic penalty shoot-out. Colombia, who equalised with England in the 93rd minute, but lost on penalties.

Russia’s stadiums are relatively small compared to South Africa, holding only about 45 000 people. They have been mostly full and vocal, which is great - even if one of them, the Mordovia Arena, is rather too close in design to the FNB Stadium for comfort. As the old saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and as we keep on saying, “our World Cup was by far the best”.

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