In the week since the World Cup kicked off, much ink has been spilled about the vuvuzelas, those long plastic horns that produce a sound like swarming bees when they are blown en masse during a soccer match. This cacophony, which is audible on the telecasts, has been the defining story from the first round of group games at this World Cup. It is the early days of the tournament when teams play in a cautious and uncertain fashion as they feel themselves and each other out. With lacklustre soccer after the protracted run-up to the tournament, many fans and pundits have chosen to focus their energies on the vuvuzelas. Their vague and persistent din appears to be that much more audible when it serves as the aural backdrop to a dull match between a desultory would-be contender and a reluctant hanging on for dear life. The aggravation caused by these horns has prompted many a columnist to weigh in on the matter, inspired plenty of Twitter activity, and resulted in a Facebook group petitioning FIFA to ban the horns that has attracted more than 250,000 users as of this writing.
While it is difficult to know how many of those users will stick with the cause as the tournament evolves and becomes more interesting, the mere existence of this group reflects what is arguably the larger story of the 2010 World Cup. This is the first World Cup to be conducted during the Web 2.0 era and participants on every level – from coaches to players to commentators to fans – have taken to platforms like Twitter and Facebook with tremendous alacrity. Newpapers like The Guardian have assembled multi-media World Cup web centers that feature recaps, opinion pieces, podcasts, and tweets among other sorts of content. In North America, ESPN has made all of the games available as streaming content via its ESPN3 web channel and on smartphones. With all of these mechanisms that enable one to follow the event over the Internet, fans have more ways now to take in the games and engage with the event than ever before.
The vuvuzela controversy is in part a function of this. The mildly irritating buzz has become something of a phenomenon through an abundance of media coverage and fan discussion. One wag even created a Twitter account for the item – @The_Vuvuzela – that produces entries like “Things to do today: bzzzzzzzzzzzz, bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, BZZZZZZZZ, and the laundry” and there is the score for the vuvuzela concerto that has been making the rounds (the horns can play but one note, a bflat). This has produced a stream of tweets that satirize the fact that the vuvuzela effectively produces the same response to every event that might occur over the course of a match, particularly when it is wielded by over-eager foreign fans. Meanwhile, the BBC has revealed that it is contemplating offering vuvuzela-free broadcasts. For those who love the sound of the vuvuzela’s Bflat monotone, there is always the free vuvuzela iPhone app, which will turn your smartphone into a virtual vuvuzela.
Yet for all of this engagement, we might observe that the vuvuzela controversy has thus far obscured two arguably more significant and problematic issues: the decision of security workers to strike over missing pay packets and the swathes of empty seats that have been visible at most games thus far. The former has resulted in South African police stepping into the breech to cover the games while the latter has been variously attributed to ticket brokers failing to unload their stocks, foreign supporters not making it to South Africa, or visitors misjudging the distances between various match venues. As in the case of the vuvuzela, FIFA has mostly responded to these situations with platitudes and non-committal statements. Football’s governing body knows as well as anyone that, once the quality of the matches picks up, these issues are likely to be forgotten or overlooked by football-mad supporters. They also know that these issues on the ground are of only limited interest to foreigners following the game via live broadcasts and the Internet. The vuvuzela controversy exemplifies this in an odd way. These little horns have become so controversial in large part because they affect the viewing experience for those at home. It is unfortunate that the potentially more important issues concerning compensation for event workers and ticket availability have not attracted anything close to the same degree of attention in the virtual realm. As often seems to be the case with participatory culture, individuals only see fit to participate when they believe that their interests are directly affected by the events that are occurring. As a result, we have a massive Facebook group in favor of banning the vuvuzela, but little in the way of protest or commentary concerning these other issues.
The coming weeks are likely to bring a higher caliber of play to the tournament as weaker teams are eliminated and the games grow more important. These events will likely push the vuvuzela controversy off the front page and eliminate any chance of the world casting an eye towards the larger social issues positioned just beneath the tournament’s ebullient facade. If this should occur, this writer might be forced to acknowledge that Terry Eagleton makes a fair point when he writes that football is a distraction that primarily serves the interests of capital. In the social media era, more people are engaging with the “beautiful game” in more ways than ever before. This participation is the story of the 2010 World Cup, but it won’t mean much unless fans and onlookers set aside petty concerns to engage with the more substantive issues that lurk just beyond the fringes of the world’s largest sporting event.