The World Cup Kickoff: Tiny Balls in Bowls, Charlize Theron, and Soccer-Playing Elephants

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 4 2009 4:02 PM

The World Cup Kickoff: Tiny Balls in Bowls, Charlize Theron, and Soccer-Playing Elephants

Friday's draw for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was half infomercial, half key party . First came the propaganda: a succession of performances centered on the message that South Africans are jovial types who wouldn't dare screw up soccer's grandest event. A video depicting elephants, lions, and ostriches kicking a soccer ball around the bush the sub-Saharan equivalent of those Budweiser Clydesdale ads was followed by a musical number in which service industry employees (janitors, hotel maids, train conductors, bartenders) smile broadly as they perform their various tourist-friendly tasks. ( Prostitutes not included .) South African President Jacob Zuma also pushed the nothing-to-worry-about vibe, declaring that preparations for the continent's first World Cup "are on time" and have "gone according to plan." All that was missing was a meerkat singing " Hakuna Matata ."

Sepp Blatter, president of soccer's international governing body FIFA, graced the proceedings in the traditional soccer potentate style, with a mix of continental paternalism and old-man skeeviness. FIFA is "trusting in South Africa," Blatter declared. "The World Cup coming to Africa, it is a love story," he told befeathered presenter Carol Manana , "and it's easy to fall in love in Africa when I see you." Manana curtsied politely.

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With the Epcot World Showcase part out of the way, the business of the evening plucking tiny soccer balls out of bowls as a means to divvy the 32 World Cup entrants into four-team groups could begin. The United States benefited from the luck of the draw, landing in a group with England and relative lightweights Algeria and Slovenia. As the USA-England match was revealed, ex-national team defender Alexi Lalas could be heard yelling, "Yes! Yes! We've got the mother country, boys." While Lalas cleaned his musket and railed against the Stamp Act, FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke asked co-host Charlize Theron if she recalled America's famed upset of the English in 1950. The actress' response: "How old do you think I am?"

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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