RUSTENBURG, South Africa—A few hours before the United States-England game in Rustenburg on Saturday, a curious détente took place in the bustling, if bizarrely named, P.H. Network Cafe across from the stadium. An English fan, swaddled in red and white, turned to an American fan, swaddled in red and white and blue, and gently communicated his desire for how the game would unfold: “Best of luck. I hope it’s a draw.” The American desired this result as well, and off they went, all but arm in arm, to see their wishes fulfilled once Robert Green let a Clint Dempsey shot trickle past him near the end of the first half.
Poor Green. It was a hideous gaffe, and he’s already being keelhauled back home for what might prove to be a mere sandtrap on the way to the second round. But what the rabid British press—which moves the needle of global opinion on soccer matters—can never seem to grasp in the frenzy before the World Cup is that England, by every measure, is a second-tier team, a rung down from the Brazils of the game. The Three Lions are consistently good and almost never great. Opponents who withstand an early rush can often take advantage of a flagging side that is always wound too tightly. Pointyheads have attributed England’s woes to various factors, among them Premier League fatigue, but one look at Frank Lampard’s scowling visage in the warm-ups was enough to tell you what kind of pressure the English players are facing.
The English fans, at least the ones on the ground in the dour platinum mining town of Rustenburg, appear to have accepted their team’s diminished status. Some predicted a U.S. win. Some thought England wouldn’t make it out of the group stage. Most were content just to be watching soccer. The scene outside the stadium felt like Coachella in soccer jerseys. Before the game, Brits and Yanks mingled and danced and sipped suds on the grass. The place was lousy with conviviality. Americans draped in “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags—a symbol of the national soccer team but also a Revolutionary War battle banner—couldn’t get a rise out of anyone. There was nary a hooligan to be found, and the closest thing to loutish behavior I witnessed came from a tubby and thoroughly soused man from York wearing a Wehrmacht helmet painted with St George’s cross. The man said it was a gift from his grandfather, who, he insisted, had strangled a German with his bare hands to get it. He then roared several unintelligible jokes, guffawed, and stomped away.
Compared to the swirling paranoia of Johannesburg, where within minutes of my arrival I was handed a panic button that summons men with automatic weapons to my defense, hanging out with hammered English fans was perfectly relaxing, even after the whispers of an al-Qaida attack on this game. Four years ago in Germany, other fans treated Americans like the kids who’d wandered up to the adult table during dessert. This time, a grudging respect is being extended. As it should be: On Saturday, the Americans got the better of the English both on the field and off. For one, they were just as intoxicated. (I saw a shirtless man dry humping the air in celebration after the game ended.) The Yanks’ costumes were more creative. (I spotted a couple wearing complete astronaut suits.) They cheered louder. And there were more of them. Eight thousand Americans had bought tickets to the match, compared to 6,000 English. Most of the 30,000 or so remaining seats in the Royal Bafokeng stadium were filled with South Africans, which may be several thousand more than will fill these seats at any point in the near future.
Rustenburg, unfortunately, is a backwater. My guidebook describes it as a “hymn to misguided town planning” rife with fast food joints and violent crime. A place to avoid. The winding roads to the city are lined with poor people selling firewood, fruit, and tribal tchotchkes. Once the World Cup tourists leave, they aren’t coming back. But Rustenburg is also the only sizeable settlement in South Africa with a black township at its heart, according to Tumelo Pooe, one local resident I met who was going to the game. That makes it one of the most integrated cities in a country that remains racially polarized in ways that most people can’t imagine. It was an outwardly noble gesture for FIFA and the South African government to stage games here and to pour $48 million into renovating Rustenburg’s soccer stadium. But the worried chatter from Tumi and other black residents was that the stadium, like several more built or refurbished for the tournament, will become a “white elephant”—an underused hulk that will never pay for itself. The unanswerable question: What will the cost be after the World Cup is over?
For one night, though, such questions were put aside. The American defense, hobbling back from injury, stifled Wayne Rooney, who recently looked like the guy to give Leo Messi a run as the best player in the world. The English came away with ample material for self-debasement, one of their treasured national pastimes. Both teams remain in a good position to advance. And after the game, the crowd danced off into the night, one of the densest concentrations of people ever to be so delighted with a tie.