Today it is my priviledge to introduce an extremely talented young woman, Sarita Pillay Gonzalez,to you. Besides being a South African Mexican (can you imagine how much fun the opening ceremony was for her?), Sarita was also a volunteer for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The following is her account of her amazing experience over the last month.
With only a day to go until the greatest spectacle on earth comes to an end, looking back on the month that was, I cannot help but get a little teary eyed. I have experienced the world cup from all angles, as a proud local, as a die-hard fan and as a World Cup volunteer.On 11th June I sat in awe in Soccer City, taking in the sea of yellow as South Africans filled the stadium brimming with pride and patriotism. The atmosphere was absolutely electrifying with the sound of vuvuzelas adding to the buzz. As if the momentous occasion was not overwhelming enough, the opening match held a special significance for my family, significance beyond sport or history. It had to do with the two teams on the field, South Africa and Mexico.
You see, we are one of those ‘multicultural’ families and ours is not a particularly common cultural mix. My father is South African and my mother is Mexican. Unless you’re acquainted with my family, it is not often that Mexico and South Africa feature in the same sentence. That is, until June 11th 2010. It was an almost surreal experience to see thousands of Mexicans, kitted in green and donning sombreros (or “lucho libre” wrestling outfits) in Soccer City. Before, my mother and I would be pleasantly surprised if we were out shopping and we happened to hear people speaking Spanish, not to mention be completely taken aback if we found out that they were Mexican. In Soccer City, we were surrounded by thousands of Spanish-speaking Mexicans, most of whom were animatedly interacting with South African fans. The spirit between Mexicans and South Africans at the opening match was completely amiable and fans mingled effortlessly, despite the language barrier. There I was, sitting next to my makarapa-wearing, matraca-wielding (a matraca is a noise-maker used in soccer games in Mexico) Mexican-American uncle and his family. It was as if my two worlds had collided in the most spectacular fashion possible.
With my family here from overseas, we had the opportunity firsthand to see how South Africa was dealing with tourists and how tourists were responding to the country. The response was nothing but positive, my family fell in love with this country, quickly catching on to Nandos, ‘ayoba’ and the tune of Shosholoza. From Johannesburg to Rustenburg, they were approached by local people, from grey-haired old ladies to young twenty-somethings, some thanking them for visiting the country, others wishing them all the best for their team and their stay in South Africa. The smiling faces and warm greetings were exactly like a South African Tourism adverts, the friendly rainbow nation did not disappoint.
Over the past month, I was one of those fans, donned in the colours of Bafana Bafana (except when Mexico played, of course), wearing my Makarapa, attempting to blow my vuvuzela and warmly welcoming people from all over the world. However, my role extended beyond just that of the amicable ‘average’ South African soccer fan, I was also part of the FIFA family. For two weeks, I worked as a 2010 FIFA World Cup volunteer at Loftus Stadium, in the media functional area. I worked in the stadium media centre, in press conferences and in the media tribune during games. Being behind the scenes of the World Cup opened my eyes to the degree of preparation and organisation that goes into hosting a match and press conference, let alone an entire tournament! From working in a press conference where Diego Maradona wooed journalists, to watching the drama of the Denmark vs Cameroon game from the media tribune and seeing Bafana Bafana train – working as volunteer gave me the opportunity to experience a side of the FIFA World Cup that not many see. I saw the hiccups of the first few days of the tournament and the beads of sweat on the foreheads of the FIFA officials before every game. I learnt the lingo, a Tuesday was not a Tuesday if a match was the next day, it was Match Day -1. I found out how male dominated the football journalism industry was when working in press conferences, I was often one of only two females in the entire room. I saw the lengths to which FIFA went to accommodate the journalists. As volunteers, we were told from the outset how important our roles were: journalists are the people who portray the World Cup and the country to the rest of the world. Our conduct was make or break stuff.
As a volunteer, I made every effort to be as positive, patient and helpful as possible. I took on my role with great enthusiasm and pride, if I could change the perception of just one journalist about South Africa, I would be happy. As media volunteers, we often had to deal with journalists who were quite obviously pessimists about South Africa and patronising in the way in which they would interact with the volunteers. This proved to be the most challenging part of working as a volunteer.
However, volunteering was made up of more positive experiences and interactions than negative ones. I spoke to journalists from Cuba to Japan about soccer, journalism and South Africa. One Japanese journalist asked a few volunteers to make a list of ‘typical’ South African foods which he wanted to photograph and, perhaps, taste. We directed him to the local shopping centre to try out bunny-chow, upon his return we found out that he had in fact been to Marabastad and had gone as far as tasting mopane worms!
As volunteers we often found ourselves as the centre of attention on non-match days, when soccer news was scarce. I was interviewed by a Vietnamese and Argentinean T.V station and my photo made it into a newspaper in Russia.
By the end of the tenure of Loftus as a World Cup venue, the media volunteers had won over many of the journalists, some of whom were once critical were now complimentary and many were sad to say goodbye.
It is hard to believe that the 2010 FIFA World Cup is coming to an end, FIFA will leave and as will the thousands of soccer fans, journalists and officials from all over the world. When the final whistle blows on 11th July 2010, I will reflect on a month of human togetherness, passion and incomparable pride. It remains to be seen as to whether the World Cup will have a lasting effect on South Africa. What is certain, however, is that South Africa embraced the world and the world, slowly but surely, embraced South Africa.