There’s a by-the-numbers journalistic trick–one I that I have, sadly, employed on more than one occasion–in which, after observing their subject for a time, said journalist writes a piece in which he or she “discovers” some great truth about it. Here’s a secret: 99.9% of the time, the lesson hasn’t actually been learned, because it was figured out (or invented) ahead of time. Shocking, I know.
Which brings us to Paraguay-Slovakia. Shortly after the World Cup draw back in December, Mravic and I got to talking about possible stories. One we came up with was picking the worst game and just covering it straight. Now, when we said, “worst game,” we weren’t necessarily looking for he two least talented teams. Rather, we were looking for the least glamorous game, the one featuring the most random matchup we could find. It didn’t take long before we had our winner: Paraguay against Slovakia, on June 20 in Bloemfontein.
This game had absolutely nothing to recommend it, unless you are Paraguayan, Slovakian or, prefereably, both. There’s no geographic intrigue, like Portugal-Spain, or any sort of lingering colonial ill will, like U.S.-England. No lovable underdogs, no superstar players. Just the national teams of two countries most people in the States couldn’t find on a map.
This is how obscure they are: The original idea was to do some reporting in New York, go to a Paraguayan restaurant and get the folks there to talk smack about Slovakia, then head to a Slovak joint and do the same. But there are a grand total of zero Paraguayan and Slovak restaurants in the City. Mind you, there are Benin-themed joints, and I think there’s a section of Queens known as Little Andorra. But nothing for Paraguay or Slovakia.
So then I figured I’d track down a famous Slovak or two. Alas, the only ones I could find were Ivan Reitman, who didn’t want to be interviewed, and boxer Kelly Pavlik, who was nice enough to talk to me about growing up in a Slovak neighborhood of Youngstown. That was it. As for finding a famous Paraguayan-American, I couldn’t. Seriously. Google “famous Paraguayan-American.” You get zero hits. Zero.
To make things even more bizarre, Bloemfontein was the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkein, so the nicest hotel in town is a B&B called The Hobbit Hotel. Staying there was a no-brainer.
So I figured what would happen would be this: I’d set up how absurd this was, crack a few orc jokes and then close with a lesson learned, specifically that there’s no such thing as a bad World Cup game, because even the worst one is pretty great.
I was a little unprepared for what happened. It turned out that the worst game was, in fact, pretty great. I actually learned the lesson I was prepared to have pretended to learn. It all started outside the stadium, maybe an hour before kickoff. I went out in search of fans for either team, hoping to find out what made them tick–and maybe get them to talk a little smack about each other. (Side note: Back in Cape Town, we started chatting up Paraguay fans after they played Italy, trying to get them to start a war of words with Slovakia. It almost worked: Paraguayans were convinced that Slovaks ate nothing but potatoes and that the president of Paraguay, a former bishop who has fathered children by at least three women, could beat up Slovakia’s president. But the Slovaks refused to stoop to that level. When I asked a Slovak if his president could beat up Paraguay’s president, the response I got was, “Who did you say you work for?”) Instead, the Paraguayans and Slovaks were getting along famously, each singing their own songs but also posing for pictures with each other.
When things really got cool, though, was when a group of local fifth graders showed up. They had been given tickets by adidas as part of some sponsorship arrangement (suffice to say, the game was nowhere near sold out). Being from Bloemfontein, they didn’t care who won, so the fans took it upon themselves to try to win the kids over to their side. There was no reason for them to do it, other than it was fun for everyone involved. The Slovaks had the Paraguayans outnumbered, and they were making a hell of a racket by chanting “My smy tu doma! My smy tu doma!” I had no idea what it meant, so I asked a kid with a Slovakia scarf. His name was Ivan, who was busy teaching it to a group of girls. He told me it meant, “Here we are home,” and that Slovaks always chanted it when they played away from home.
So I kicked around a little while longer, and before I went back inside, I saw Ivan again. This time he was scarf-less. I looked around a little more and saw one of the girls, whose name was Nthabeleng, wearing it. He told me he gave it to her “because she asked.” “I can get that stuff any time in Slovakia,” he said. Nthabeleng, meanwhile, had suddenly been transformed into the most popular kid in the class because she had the scarf. One thing I’ve found is that most people who aren’t used to being photographed love it when you take their picture. But Nthabeleng wasn’t just smiling because I wanted to take her picture; she was beaming because she was so proud of the scarf.
After the game, which Paraguay won handily, I stopped off at a restaurant to watch the late game. There were a bunch of non-Paraguayans in there wearing Paraguay jerseys. Finally, I asked a dude in a Paraguay jersey and a Slovakia hat what was going on. The guy, named Tibor, told me that he was a Slovak and that after the game, he and a bunch of his friends swapped jerseys with some Paraguayans, just like the players do. It was pretty cool. And then as I was leaving, Tibor called me back and gave me his hat.
So I went back to the Hobbit Hotel and wrote something for the magazine about the lesson I learned. Hackneyed, yes. But for once there actually was a lesson in there.
Sweet, I know.
Then I went back to Bloemfontein a week later for Germany-England. The first trip reassured me that remarkable little things happen every day. The second one had me roiled into a homicidal rage, one that is creeping back into my body as I think of it a full week later. Long story short: Hobbit Hotel full, so I book a room at a B&B north of town. The woman on the phone, an exotic bird raiser named Mardie, tells me that she’s not going to require a deposit, but please don’t bail, because that would leave her in a lurch. Then the Hobbit Hotel calls: They’ve got a room. I say no. The Hobbit Hotel is a 10-minute walk from the stadium; the Amazon Spa is a 45-minute drive. But I gave Mardie, the exotic bird raiser/hotelier, my word. I could have bailed at no cost to me. But no. I keep my word. I schlep up there through blazing backwoods (seriously, why is so much of South Africa on fire?) and pull in at 9:00. There is, per the norm, an electrified fence around the place, so I call Mardie to tell her I’m there. She doesn’t answer. Some guy does. He tells me I need to wait. Fifteen minutes later he comes outside. At the time I wasn’t sure how involved he was in the emerging conspiracy developing against me. He portrayed himself as the messenger, nothing more, and I was prepared to take him at his word. In hindsight, he knew what was going on (I think he was Mardie’s husband), which is why at the time I wouldn’t have said anything bad about him but now I have no qualms pointing out that he was a troglodyte with a syphillitic nose and a terrible haircut. He told me the room Mardie booked was in Bloemfontein, which meant turning around and driving back (I had work to do, mind you). Again, can’t really call him out on his troglodytic ways, because A) I wasn’t convinced–yet–that he was actively screwing me, and B) he was the only one who could give me directions. So I drive back and, of course, get lost. While cruising the backstreets of Bloemfontein, I somehow run over what appeared to be a giant tumbleweed, only it was made out of piano wire. It had lodged itself in the wheel well of one of the front tires, and it was dragging all over the place and I was afraid it was going to wrap around the axle and really screw things up, so I had to get out of the car (not recommended on a deserted road at 10:00 in the middle of nowhere) and try to pull it off. Question: Ever grabbed a handful of piano wire and pulled? No. Well, it hurts. Fifteen minutes later, piano wire is gone, as are three of my fingertips. I finally locate this B&B I’m supposed to be staying at. As I look to park my car, the woman who runs it, whose name escapes me, tells me to sit tight because someone is coming to pick me up. “Huh?” I say. Turns out that not only had Mardie given away my room, but she then sent me to a place that was also full. The lady who runsthe second place tells me the best she can do is get me a bed in someone’s house, though I’ll have to share the room with some Australians. Long story short (too late, I know), I end up driving the four hours back to Jo-burg (had I known it was a four-hour drive I would have driven home from the get-go), but only after making sure everyone in Bloemfontein had been given the same message to relay to Mardie should they see her: “#^$% you, lady.” (Seriously, if you have the time and the inclination, call Mardie at the number on the website and taunt her birds. And her husband. Better yet, book rooms and don’t show.)
So there you have it. Bloemfontein: Humanity at its best. And worst.