Okay, maybe it was a stupid idea to go to a football match without tickets. But come on. Firstly, this is South Africa, and that’s the kind of thing we do over here.
Secondly, this was a friendly, USA vs Australia, at Ruimsig Stadium. A friendly! Step inside, you’re very welcome, sit anywhere you want, we’re all friendly here!
And also, I had tried, all week, to get tickets, or at least to find out whether or not you need tickets to go a friendly. I asked the Internet, I asked Computicket, I asked the lady at the FIFA ticketing centre, who looked at me blankly and told me to ask Computicket, who…well, this is South Africa.
So when Saturday came, I left nice and early with my son and his friend, and we drove to the stadium and eased into the queue of cars, with their flags fluttering in the breeze, only this time there were Star-Spangled Banners and Union Jacks with Southern Crosses rampant as well.
Someone was waving the Stars ‘n Stripes from the sunroof of their SUV, and for a moment I felt a curious sense of disconnection, as if I wasn’t in Roodepoort anymore, and had somehow translocated to Kansas. I get that feeling a lot these days.
Then we got to the gate of the parking lot of the stadium, and the man standing there sketched an oblong shape with his fingers, which I immediately understood to mean “ticket”.
I rolled down the window and said, “Can we get tickets inside?”, and he said “No, you can’t get inside without a ticket”, and he motioned us to turn back because we didn’t have tickets. But this is South Africa, so I just said, “We’ll get tickets inside”, and I drove in and we parked.
Everywhere I looked, as we walked towards the stadium, I saw people clutching tickets in their hands. I was getting worried. I saw a man wearing the American flag on his shoulders, and I asked him if we knew where we could get tickets. “Ah, we got them from the Embassy,” he said, and he gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder when I sighed and said I didn’t have any.
A big sign at the stadium gate said “No Entry Without a Valid Ticket”, and a big man at the stadium gate, with a curly wire dangling from his ear, said “No”, when I asked him if we could get tickets inside. My son and his friend were getting impatient and irritated, and so was I.
I asked a man with an Australian Football Federation blazer, and he said no, and a man handing out tickets to schoolchildren at a trestle table, and he said no, and then I saw a man from my team, wearing my shirt, and standing outside the fence, looking on as the teams ran onto the pitch for their warm-up.
He also didn’t have tickets. He had a picnic cooler with him. He was ready for the game. “Maybe they’ll let us all in when everyone with tickets has gone in,” I said. “No,” he said, “I don’t think so. They’re FIFA. They’ll probably just leave us all standing here.” But he was wrong, because a policeman came along and told us we had to move away from the fence. Ag, come on, seriously?
By now, there were a bunch of us standing around the fence, ticketless, clueless, hopelessly trying to figure out a way to get in, as the minutes ticked away to kick-off. I wandered around, mentioning the word “tickets” to people who looked friendly, and no sooner had I done so, then other people would come up to me and say, “You got tickets?”
A guy in a Bafana shirt, just like mine, said in a low voice that he could get me tickets, and how much money did I have on me? I said a hundred bucks, which wasn’t really true, but I didn’t really want to spend anything on free tickets for a friendly anyway. Come on, we have to draw the line somewhere.
I went back to the guy with the picnic cooler, and he was talking to a riot cop, with a regulation 9mm pistol and a regulation baton and a regulation teargas cannister and a regulation boep.
The cop said, “It’s not us, hey, it’s FIFA, they’re going to ask to chase all you okes away from here any minute now.” I said, it’s crazy, we just want to watch some football, we’ve come all the way out here, and our own team isn’t even playing.
They’ll never let you in, said the cop. Not without tickets. Forget it. The guy with the picnic cooler said to the cop, “is it okay if we drink a beer here?” And the cop said, because it was a serious question, “Strictly speaking, this is a public place, and you’re not supposed to drink alcohol in a public place.”
“Is it okay if I drink it in a glass then?” said the guy in the Bafana shirt. The cop popped his earpiece from his ear and said, quietly, “Look, I’m not going to say whether you can or you can’t.” He pointed at a glass enclosure at the top of the stadium. “Just remember FIFA are in charge here, hey. And they can probably see you, wherever you go.”
Then he gave us a conspiratorial shrug, and went back to his duty, which was to stand at the fence and make sure we didn’t hop over or disturb the peace. But there wasn’t any peace: the ball had been kicked into play, and the vuvuzelas were already drowning out the announcer.
Okay, I said to my son and his friend, let’s go, we can stop along the way for a milkshake. Then, just as were heading up the hill, back to the car, we saw a lady who recognised my son’s friend from school, and we told her our sorry story, and she pointed at a man in a green jacket, and said, why don’t you ask him nicely.
So we asked him nicely, and he motioned us to wait, and then, looking straight ahead, he tore three tickets from a roll in his pocket, and we thanked him discreetly and made our way in.
They were great seats. It was a great game. We saw David Beckham in the VIP suite, up and to the left. And we learned a little bit about South Africa, which is probably the only country in the world where the riot police are friendlier than the football administrators.
I hope the guy with the picnic cooler managed to find some tickets too, or at least enjoy the game while drinking his beer on the verge.