Football, as a spectacle, is uniquely dependent on its fans. Without the soundtrack of gasps, groans and cheers, events on the pitch would assume a quality of supreme existential futility. And one of the joys of any international tournament is attuning to the rich variety of unfamiliar songs, chants and in-jokes.
Viewers of the 2010 World Cup have been denied these pleasures by FIFA’s decision to allow into grounds the vuvuzela – the plastic horn inexplicably beloved by some South African fans. The infernal din generated by these instruments has been a principal talking point of the competition so far – not least because, it seems reasonable to suggest, the enervating drone of the vuvuzelas has contributed to what has, at time of writing, been generally wretched football (Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo have complained that the vuvuzelas make concentration a struggle).
It’s not just the players whose jobs are made difficult by the vuvuzelas. They also challenge broadcasters, who have to make their commentators heard – vuvuzelas have been measured at 127 decibels, as against the 100 or so generated by a chainsaw – without alienating casual viewers struggling through Algeria vs Slovenia.
“Reflecting the background and atmosphere is part of our coverage,” says a spokesman for British network ITV, “but we do have the ability to adjust the balance, as we do at any match.” He wouldn’t be drawn on whether and to what extent ITV have done that in this case. The BBC, for their part, acknowledge that they have turned down the “match effects” feed from the grounds to mute the sound of the horns.
FIFA can’t say it wasn’t warned – vuvuzelas blighted 2009’s Confederations Cup, also held in South Africa. However, FIFA president Sepp Blatter decided against banning them, concerned about looking like he was trying to “Europeanise” Africa’s first World Cup. This has been a common response of the vuvuzela’s defenders, who fret that banning them would amount to a colonialist extinguishing of a vibrant native tradition.
They’d have more of a point if the vuvuzela wasn’t unheard of (and mercifully unheard from) in South Africa until the 1990s, when it was developed by Cape Town plastics engineer Neil Van Schalkwyk – and if most vuvuzelas weren’t made in China, and if football itself wasn’t a colonial import to begin with.
There is nothing inherently colonialist about asking someone to cease making an irritating racket. International football tournaments are not usually regarded as an excuse for the host nation to flaunt the more obnoxious qualities of its fan culture: during the 1996 European Championships, England supporters were not officially licensed to bellow inane racist slogans and throw café tables at policemen.
Nobody would stop watching the World Cup if the vuvuzelas were silenced. But a lot of people are going to find a month of them unendurable.