For just a moment, the relentless, buzzing drone of vuvuzelas was punctured by roars. Thousands of South African fans forgot to press their lips to the infuriatingly noisy plastic horns – which after 54 minutes of the 2010 World Cup had already grown unbearable – and celebrated.
They celebrated because Siphiwe Tshabalala, bursting down the left and into the box, had slammed the ball into the far top corner. He had scored South Africa’s first goal at the World Cup they hosted. He had scored it in front of 80,000 South African fans, in Johannesburg. He had given his nation the lead against Mexico.
Peter Drury’s commentary, to the delight of some and irritation of others, was typically effusive. But the occasion merited it. “Goal, Bafana Bafana!” he shouted, attempting to raise his voice above the vuvuzelas, which had returned like a persistent swarm of bees almost immediately after the brief respite. “Goal for South Africa. Goal for all Africa. Rejoice!”
The goal itself is remembered, and how it could not be: the incisive passing, the speed of the counter attack and Tshabalala’s emphatic finish. But the significance, the importance of the goal in the context of this tournament, the first hosted by an African nation, cannot be overstated.
It was a goal of inclusion: South Africa, a nation with such deep historical divides, a past of racial segregation and apartheid, had been united in a moment of ecstasy. Tshabalala and his teammates danced and so did the crowd.
Nelson Mandela, by now 91-years-old, had been unable to attend after the death of his 13-year-old granddaughter in a car crash. But, as then president Jacob Zuma put it, he was there in spirit. Mandela had asked that fans “enjoy the game”, and there was little chance that his request would be ignored. Even when Mexico equalised through Rafael Marquez 12 minutes from time, there was no sign of dejection. They were here to celebrate.
And celebrate they did, helped by Tshabalala’s moment of brilliance. In the circumstances, his composure in front of goal was impressive. The angle was tight, the goalkeeper appeared well positioned, and Tshabalala had to avoid the close attention of Carlos Salcido. He was under the spotlight, watched by thousands of expectant South Africans. But there was no hint of nervousness. It may have been instinctive but it appeared measured, a feat of immaculate technique and accuracy.
Few had heard of Tshabalala before his goal. The Soweto-born winger played for Kaizer Chiefs in his homeland at the time of the 2010 World Cup, and eight years later he is still there. He has not left South Africa during his career and appears to have no plans to do so.
For Tshabalala, recognition was unusual. “It’s funny, because after that game, many journalists came to me asking for the correct pronunciation of my name,” he said in an interview with FIFA that year. “At the back of my head I was thinking, ‘how did you pronounce it before?’ But I don’t blame them, there are 32 teams in a World Cup and you don’t expect the journalists to know all of them.”
His goal had endeared him, not just to South Africa’s jubilant fans, but to viewers of the World Cup across the world. It was difficult not to be caught up in a country’s excitement, not to celebrate with them as the ball rocketed into the far corner and nestled so satisfyingly in the net. It was difficult, too, not to smile as Tshabalala and four others raced to the sidelines and performed what seemed to be a perfectly choreographed dance.
“I still can’t believe that moment,” Tshabalala said. “I hardly slept that night. I kept on playing the images of that goal in my head. It was special, it was a special goal. When I’m old, I will look back at that day as a day that changed my life.”
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Also published on Medium.