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Thursday, July 8, 2010
Thank you, South Africa, for the memories

Posted by Luke Cyphers

JOHANNESBURG -- From a personal, technical standpoint, this has not been the greatest of World Cups.

The trip so far provided plenty of, um, incidents, including a canceled outbound flight, a missed connection due to the cancelation, a rerouting through Europe so as to guarantee two straight red-eyes, a credential snafu upon arrival in Johannesburg, a BlackBerry breakdown, a separate e-mail stoppage and an in-country, air-travel nail-biter that involved loss of cabin pressure, where one flight attendant could be seen sprinting to the cockpit with oxygen tanks, and another uttered the words, "We don't think we'll need an emergency landing."

But the soccer has been fantastic, and the people of South Africa even better. Here's an example, just a little sample. On a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, two South African businessmen seated near me discussed the previous night's Netherlands-Uruguay semifinal. They could not fathom how Uruguay superstar Diego Forlan had been subbed for late in the match, with the game still on the line.

As I had been at the Uruguay postmatch news conference, I felt compelled to chime in that Los Charruas coach Oscar Tabarez revealed Forlan had sustained an injury early in the match and couldn't continue to play. The businessmen thanked me for clearing that up, and a conversation ensued.

One of the men, an immigrant from England whom I'll call Jeff, since that's his name, spoke quite movingly about how important the World Cup had been for South Africa. The tournament brought a spirit of togetherness that hadn't been seen since the Springbok rugby team's "Invictus" victory 15 years ago, he said, and renewed his sense of optimism for his adopted homeland.

He spoke of how he gobbled up his maximum seven-game allotment of tickets, and how he snuck an eighth match, the semifinal in Cape Town, onto his list when a colleague gave him a spare.

His only regret? He had been collecting his stubs from every match, but somehow lost the one he used for Uruguay-Netherlands. I reached into my bag and gave him my press ticket, telling him I had no need for it.

Jeff's eyes misted a little. "You have no idea how much this means," he said. "Thank you."

And then, suddenly, he removed the multihued scarf from his neck and placed it around mine. "Take this," he said. It was an official South Africa supporter's scarf, he said, "like the one [President] Jacob Zuma wears during games."

Now I was the one who was touched. In a minute, all the petty miseries of the trip faded, replaced by a beautiful, tangible reminder of this often magical event, this always fascinating place and its kind and generous people.

I don't normally don a scarf, even on the coldest days in my upstate New York home. This one, though, I will wear with pride.

Because I am a supporter of South Africa.