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Love it or hate it, the vuvuzela is the voice of South African soccer fans and will be on display at the 2010 World Cup. (Jon Hrusa / epa / Corbis)

Vuvuzela: The Buzz of the World Cup

Deafening to fans, broadcasters and players, the ubiquitous plastic horn is closely tied to South Africa’s soccer tradition

smithsonian.com

Players taking to the pitch for the World Cup games in South Africa may want to pack some extra equipment in addition to shinguards, cleats and jerseys: earplugs.

The earplugs will protect against the aural assault of vuvuzelas. The plastic horns are a South African cultural phenomenon that that when played by hundreds or thousands of fans, sounds like a giant, angry swarm of hornets amplified to a volume that would make Ozzy Osbourne flinch. South African fans play the horns to spur their favorite players into action on the field.

“It’s really loud,” says John Nauright, professor of sports management at George Mason University and the author of “Long Run to Freedom: Sport, Cultures and Identities in South Africa.” “You can walk around with a pretty massive headache if you’re not wearing earplugs.”

A study in the South African Medical Journal released earlier this year said fans subjected to the vuvuzela swarm were exposed to a deafening peak of more than 140 decibels, equivalent to standing near a jet engine. The South African Association of Audiologists has warned they can damage hearing.

Noisemakers at soccer matches have a long history. Drums and chants are favored in countries like Brazil, where one of the popular teams has about two dozen distinct chants or anthems. Wooden rattles began making a racket at British soccer games in the early 1900s, a tradition that continued until the 1960s when fans began to chant and sing instead. Now there are dozens of new songs and chants seemingly every week. Some are adaptations of popular songs or old hymns. Some are profane taunts of their opponents.

Thundersticks emerged in Korea in the 1990s and provided the booming background for the 2002 World Cup in that country. (Thundersticks also made a brief appearance in the United States, most notably during the Anaheim Angels’ playoff run during the 2002 Major League Baseball postseason.)

In South Africa over the past decade, the plastic horns have become an integral part of the choreography at matches and the culture of the sport. When South Africa won its bid to host the World Cup in May 2004, Nelson Mandela and others celebrated with vuvuzelas. More than 20,000 were sold that day. It’s not just loud, but cheap (they cost about $7), and it has become ubiquitous at South African soccer matches. The official marketing company for the horns says it has received orders for more than 600,000 in recent months.

“This is our voice,” Chris Massah Malawai told a South African newspaper earlier this year while watching the national team, Bafana Bafana (The Boys, The Boys), play. “We sing through it. It makes me feel the game.”

After the 2009 Confederations Cup soccer matches in South Africa, FIFA, the governing body for the World Cup, received complaints from multiple European broadcasters and a few coaches and players who wanted the vuvuzela banned. Fans on both sides argued heatedly on soccer blogs and web sites. Facebook pages both to ban the instruments and support them sprang up. One opponent in a South African newspaper suggested opening the World Cup with a vuvuzela bonfire. Others staunchly defended their beloved instruments. “The vuvuzela is in our blood and is proudly South African,” one wrote in a Facebook discussion. “They should leave us alone. It’s like banning the Brazilians from doing the samba.”

During a friendly match between South Africa and Colombia two weeks before the World Cup, officials tested noise levels at the 90,000-seat Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg and announced there would be no ban.

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About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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