People power reigns at Fan Fests
© AFP

Darkness fell hours ago, and the crowd’s breath rises visibly through the frosty winter air at Johannesburg’s InnesFree Park. Yet Chuma is drenched in sweat. And no wonder. For the past two-and-a-half hours, the 27-year-old has been leading friends, strangers, locals and tourists in an indefatigable display of singing and dancing at this lively FIFA Fan Fest.

“We’re singing for Ghana,” this grinning reveller tells FIFA.com. “These songs are calling on traditional African spirits, our ancestors.” With the participants spinning, chanting and waving their vuvuzelas in unison, it’s an appealing and unmistakably African display. Just as impressive, however, is the manner in which outsiders are warmly welcomed, with Spaniard Natalia among several smiling foreigners called to join in this traditional exhibition.

Asked if the experience ranks a close second to attending the match in person, she replies without hesitation. “This is better than going to the match! The stadiums are beautiful but everyone’s sitting down - the atmosphere is nothing like this.”

Looking around, it’s difficult to dispute Natalia’s logic. The drama might be taking place across the city, but the crowd at InnesFree Park provide a stirring reminder of why football is about far more than events on the field. These communal gatherings reinforce the game’s power to unite, with their appeal summed up perfectly by Papama, a young woman with a simple explanation for why she braved the cold.

This is better than going to the match! The stadiums are beautiful but everyone’s sitting down - the atmosphere is nothing like this.
One fan describes the FIFA Fan Fest's appeal

“People,” she said succinctly. “The vibe of everyone being together is what makes this special. Some of us don’t have TVs but, anyway, you couldn’t get this kind of feeling watching the game at home. When Ghana scored, the whole place went crazy – everyone was hugging total strangers!”

Boisterously affectionate at times, this was nonetheless an atmosphere that anyone could relish. That became apparent when FIFA.com caught up with an older couple, Sid and Les Cohn, and found them beaming at the FIFA World Cup’s transformative influence on their country.

“You can’t imagine what a huge difference it has made,” said Les. “Suddenly we’re all shouting for the same thing, and whether that’s Ghana, Bafana Bafana or whoever, it doesn’t matter. We’re old enough to remember all the difficult times this country has had, so the vibe here is really special. We wanted to come along to this fan park be part of the whole event, and it’s a privilege to be here.”

This was a common feeling, and not only in Johannesburg. After all, while 2010 will be forever remembered as the year in which the FIFA World Cup came to Africa, it may also become famous for having brought the tournament to the world.

Enabling fans to experience the ‘FIFA World Cup feeling’ in their own country was certainly FIFA’s aim when it unveiled Fan Fests in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Mexico City and Rio - and the results have been spectacular. Within the first two weeks alone, more than three million fans had packed out the 16 domestic and international venues, with those outside South Africa accounting for 50 per cent of this mammoth turnout.

Germany, whose wholehearted embrace of the Fan Fest concept in 2006 provided the spur for this expansion, have again led the way, with a record 305,000 coming together in Berlin’s Olympic Square for their group decider against Ghana. Even elsewhere, where the fluctuating fortunes of Australia, France, Italy and Bafana Bafana might have been expected to deflate the atmosphere, festivities have continued unabated.

What is clear, in InnesFree Park and around the world, is that these FIFA Fan Fests have become a unique and integral element of the FIFA World Cup experience.