JOHANNESBURG — Following a 36-hour flight to Cape Town, another 11-hour drive to Port Elizabeth and a final 13-hour bus ride, Betsy Stalter finally arrived in Johannesburg just two days before her first live World Cup match, Ivory Coast versus Brazil. A lifelong soccer fan, the 28-year-old music teacher from Indianola, Iowa, was happy she could afford to attend the first World Cup on African soil.
“I was living in Nigeria for four months, so I’ve wanted to travel to another country in Africa to see what it was like,” Stalter said. “I’m definitely interested in South Africa for reasons other than the World Cup. It has a mystique with the wildlife and the politics and history; it’s a very rich country.”
Stalter’s excitement dimmed as she watched the U.S. national team’s lackluster performance from a fan zone in Sandton. “Our defense was really slouchy, like they weren’t even trying,” Stalter said as she angrily gestured toward the large screen. “I felt the same way about our last game; we just got lucky.”
Haitian-American fan Arnaud LaForestrie agreed, but he was more positive after the game ended. “I think so far, so good,” said the 29-year-old from New York City. “They unfortunately conceded a few goals that they shouldn’t have. But a 2-2 tie for me, in my heart, is still a win for them.”
Stalter and LaForestrie shared more than just discontent with the U.S. team’s defense: both were excited to experience their first World Cup in Africa. “I think it’s great for Africa,” LaForestrie said. “It’s going to unify people a lot more and show people that Africa can hold their own World Cup and help other people learn about what Africa has to offer.”
The continent holds a mystique for Ft. Washington, Md., resident Najuma Sissoko, whose husband is from Ivory Coast. She came to South Africa despite the fears expressed by friends and family members.
“I have had a lot of times in the past with people asking ‘why would you want to go to Africa,’ ” Sissoko said. “Well that’s where you’re from, so you have to come and visit Africa. This is my once in a lifetime chance to come here and see the World Cup and see South Africa as well.”
While Sissoko had never been to a soccer game before this trip, she traveled with her husband to what she considers to be a historic event and a particularly important experience for African-Americans.
Sissoko felt that safety concerns, in addition to lack of interest, contributed to the lack of black Americans following the World Cup. However, she is optimistic that advertising for the Cup may generate more interest before the 2014 Cup in Brazil.
“I’ve had a great time since I’ve been here; the people have been very welcoming,” Sissoko said. “I think a lot of people were scared off from coming here, but, they missed out, because South Africa did a great job in welcoming us. We haven’t had any issues, any problems, since we’ve been here.”