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South Africa abuzz over talk of banning soccer fans' favorite horn

Some call the vuvuzela a South African tradition; others want the noisemakers banned when the country hosts next year's World Cup.

June 28, 2009|robyn dixon

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — As South Africa gears up to host next year's soccer World Cup, there are plenty of doomsayers predicting the worst. If transportation shortages don't ruin the event, crime will. The beer will run out. Or the stadiums will be half empty.

But no one expected an ugly plastic trumpet to dominate the controversy.

Hatred of the vuvuzela, the noisemaker wielded by South African soccer fans, ignited the blogosphere even before the FIFA Confederations Cup, the country's dry run for 2010, which ends today when the U.S. national team plays Brazil for the championship.

During the current tournament, foreign players, coaches and journalists have called for a ban of the vuvuzela. There is debate about whether it's a unique part of South African culture, and therefore untouchable, or just a cheap plastic import that makes a lot of noise, like an electric air horn or a whistle.

One vuvuzela -- a loud, tuneless blast -- sounds something like a foghorn. But a stadium full of vuvuzelas, all tooting simultaneously, is either a most exhilarating and exciting sound or a noise so irritating that it borders on being painful, depending on the listener.

It's been compared to a deafening swarm of wasps. Or a herd of flatulent elephants.

The vuvuzela ranges in length from 2 to 3 feet. The longer it is, the harder it is to blow.

Video clips of groups playing the vuvuzela like a melodic instrument can be found on YouTube. But a more accurate sound clip is found on the website www.boogieblast.co.za "> www.boogieblast.co.za , which claims to be the trumpet's original distributor.

Boogieblast's sales pitch: "Remember . . . you only hate them if you don't have one."

Mike Greenberg of the ESPN radio sports show "Mike and Mike" is one of the vuvuzela's loudest detractors. He said the sound at a recent match was "excruciating."

"It never ends," Greenberg said on the air. "And it is like you are being attacked by a swarm of locusts for 90 consecutive minutes."

"I know what you're talking about," said co-host Mike Golic. "How can they constantly do that?"

Spanish soccer player Xabi Alonso called for a ban of vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup, according to South African newspaper The Times. So did Dutch Coach Bert Van Marwijk, Reuters reported.

Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, head of FIFA, the international soccer association that runs the World Cup, said recently there were no plans to ban the trumpet during the 2010 tournament.

A sports journalist with South Africa's Times, Bareng-Batho Kortjaas, said critics of the vuvuzela should watch the matches on television.

"The irony of it all is that most of those denouncing the vuvuzela's democratic right to be blown are part-time football fans who, under normal circumstances, avoid setting foot anywhere near a soccer match because it is 'too dangerous,' " he wrote recently.

Local soccer in South Africa is perceived largely as a "black" game, attracting mainly black supporters, whereas rugby crowds are overwhelmingly white.

Philip Kalinko, manager of PerkalGifts, a vuvuzela distributor in Johannesburg, said South Africans have been disagreeing for years about the noisemaker.

"For everyone who loves it, there's another person who says it should be banned," he said. "I sit there and watch the football on TV, and I don't even hear the vuvuzelas. My wife sits next to me, and she can't bear to listen to the sound of the vuvuzelas."

There is not even agreement on the horn's origins or the meaning of its name. The International Marketing Council of South Africa says the vuvuzela reportedly originated in the kudu horns used to summon villagers in times past. But Boogieblast claims the trumpets were imported as plastic toys from the United States and did not sell -- until soccer fans started using them about a decade ago.

According to the marketing council, a survey last year by research company African Response showed that 71% of South Africans think vuvuzelas will add to the atmosphere at World Cup matches.

The Confederations Cup seems to have created international interest in the trumpet: Kalinko said PerkalGifts had almost no foreign orders until a few weeks ago. In the last three weeks it has sent thousands to countries such as the Netherlands, Turkey, Austria, Britain and Ireland, usually ordered in each country's team colors, he said.

Blasting the plastic horns takes practice. "They're not easy to blow. You have to blow very hard. You've got to fill your lips up with air and blow, as hard as you can," said Kalinko. "Not everybody can do it. We've had a couple of people bringing them back saying, 'It doesn't work.' "

Shadrack Mohsen, 16, a soccer fan who's been blowing vuvuzelas since he was about 10, said banning them in South Africa would be like banning cheering in other countries.

"It's like a tradition for us to play the vuvuzela at our soccer matches when we are singing our songs," Shadrack said. "We're doing things with the vuvuzelas, like pointing them at the players."

A ban, he said, "obviously wouldn't work. People would take their vuvuzelas along anyway, because they're used to them."

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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