Let’s hear it for the vuvuzela, let’s hear it for Africa!

By Dr Sean Carey

The sound of the vuvuzela which has been unfavourably compared by some pundits with a swarm of angry bees has undoubtedly defined the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Indeed when the first few games were televised there were objections from members of overseas audiences, especially in Europe, who complained that they couldn’t hear the commentary. And some players including superstars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, moaned that the noise level made it impossible to communicate on the pitch.

There was also a flurry of articles about the health risks associated with the vuvuzela. Apparently, a young white South African woman, a novice to the instrument, had burst her windpipe and was unable to speak or eat for two days by blowing a little too enthusiastically. Then Dr Ruth McNerney of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine warned that the tiny droplets of saliva emitted from the vuvuzela can stay suspended in the air for hours and could infect anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with them. Finally, there was a warning that prolonged exposure to the sound of the vuvuzela could result in hearing loss.

But objections, including health-based ones, quickly diminished once it was explained that the vuvuzela was the way that South African football enthusiasts had traditionally demonstrated support for their teams. And it is noteworthy that FIFA President Sepp Blatter, signalled his full and early support for the sound produced by the trumpet-like instrument by declaring that “Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound”. He is right. Certainly former US president, Bill Clinton, who developed an interest in football while studying at Oxford University, changed his opinion about the merits of the vuvuzela – “it drove me nuts watching on TV” — after he was exposed to the sound in a stadium. “They seem to get in patterns but no one seems to be conducting,” he enthused to a crowd of reporters after the USA beat Algeria. “I can’t go home without one — I want to buy my own.”

The ‘you can’t criticise it because it is customary behaviour’ line of argument seems to have worked. Indeed, from my observation post in the UK, it was apparent from the second week that the vuvuzela had won the battle of global public opinion because television producers at different World Cup venues had obviously told their camera operators to get close-ups of fans in the crowd – black, brown and white — blowing the plastic horns for all they were worth.

Nevertheless, an interesting question arises: can the vuvuzela gain a foothold in Britain? It certainly doesn’t look as if it’s going to be easy, at least as far as ‘Middle-England’ is concerned. In the last week or so, several sports venues including Harlequins Rugby League, AFC Wimbledon and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, keenly aware that around one and a half million vuvuzelas had already reached Europe and more were on their way, announced a ban. Two reasons were cited. The first was that the noise produced in a stadium would mean that players wouldn’t be able to hear a referee’s instructions, and the second was that it would interfere with supporters’ traditional cheering and singing.

The Wimbledon tennis authorities who pride themselves on maintaining good behaviour amongst both spectators and players (just ask former Wimbledon champion, John McEnroe) were also quick to announce that the vuvuzela would not be permitted inside the arena. “We have a list of prohibited items, including rattles and klaxons, and vuvuzelas will fall into that category — so the message is not to bring them,” said a spokesman. “We think fans will understand.”

On the other hand, the attempt to stifle the use of the vuvuzela at many of Britain’s leading sporting venues certainly hasn’t hampered sales so it is very likely that the now familiar drone will soon be established somewhere. In fact, the online trade in the horns in the UK has been phenomenal and Sainsbury’s, the UK’s third-largest supermarket group, has acquired supplies to meet the huge demand. “Playing the vuvuzela is a uniquely South African way to celebrate the World Cup, and our customers are really getting into the spirit of things by flocking to buy them,” said a spokeswoman.

Of course, last Sunday Wayne Rooney and the rest of his English team mates failed to answer the nation’s prayers and were comprehensively beaten by a young and very talented German side. But my observations suggest that vuvuzelas are still selling well. However, what is also intriguing are reports in the last few days of a surge in sales of the Ghanaian flag reflecting a groundswell of support from UK fans, which includes around 1.5 million British Ghanaians, for the last African team left in the competition.

So can Ghana win the World Cup? The African team certainly has a chance in its match against Uruguay today, but even if successful it will meet far stronger opposition in the next rounds of the tournament. Alas, this makes it is unlikely that the Black Stars will lift the FIFA World Cup Trophy. But whichever team claims the prize there is no doubt that Africa will emerge as the overall winner. And the sound of the vuvuzela will have played no small part in that triumph.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2010

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