The World Cup starts on Friday, and billions of people around the planet are looking forward to it.
I am, too, but I’ll also be looking back-to 1995, Tsepo Mahlaba and the South African soccer tournament I almost didn’t attend.
In 1995 I participated in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program.
My exchange partner Vukani instructed his friends to treat me like a brother.
Tsepo took his assignment seriously.
Tsepo was an engineer who had come of age after the Soweto riots in 1976 and whose rapid ascent into the upper middle class was embodied by his black BMW 318i.
In November we drove the car from Durban to Johannesburg to see the finals of the Four Nations Cup that pitted South Africa against Zimbabwe.
There was a hitch, though.
I didn’t have a ticket.
After learning that indeed I did want to go to the game rather than watch it on television, Tsepo set off a few hours before the game to get me one. He also devised a plan in which he would buy me an ample supply of videos, drug my Coca Cola with sleeping pills, and upbraid me afterward for having passed out and missed the match.
Fortunately, his ticket quest was successful.
In the second half, the South African squad took an insurmountable two-goal lead. The stadium exploded in joy, bursting into spontaneous strains of Shosholoza, the unofficial South African sporting national anthem. Originally a Zulu song sung by miners, it spoke about a train rolling on, indomitable and unstoppable.
Tsepo was on fire.
Drawing on his boyhood chorister’s training, brandy and coke in hand, he lead the fans around us in endless body swaying, fist pumping rounds of Shoshaloza.
The people followed his lead, answering with a strength that said, “We may have sung this song during the Rugby World Cup, but this is the true South African sport.”
In a week that same spirit, undimmed 16 years after apartheid ended, will be on display for the entire world to see. Tsepo will be at as many of South Africa’s games as he can. Thousands of miles away, I’ll be watching, too.
And remembering our adventure.