No. 2: World Cup

Hail the vuvuzela!

Productivity nearly ground to a halt when those horns starting buzzing, signaling the FIFA 2010 World Cup. As predicted, 2010 emerged as an incredible sports year. For 30 days in summer, men’s soccer (aka football) became the world’s sport.

South Africa was hosting, and the African continent — so often tied to colonization, poverty, and apartheid in headlines — could show how far it had come, as well as what still needed to be done. The country cleaned up well: It built five stadiums for the event and fixed up another five for the 32 guest nations who converged on June 11.

Culture cram
People not so familiar with the World Cup were speed-learning online, absorbing everything from the vuvuzela tradition to the Jabulani (ball) controversy. Then there were those brackets and rules (and who might break them) to track. In the first days, the focus was on past and present players like hotheaded Argentinian coach Diego Maradona, Zidane (whose infamous head butt made his bald pate familiar among online sports fans), Wayne Rooney, and Christiano Ronaldo.

Soccer jerseys became summer wear and a point of national pride. Viewers wondered, “What is that buzzing noise?” And players and commentators bickered over whether Africa’s long horn should be banned from the stands. In defense of haters, a single vuvuzela registered 127 decibels, louder than a drum (122 decibels) or a referee’s whistle (121.8).

Upsets, heartbreak, and an octopus
By week two, the vuvuzela buzz had became part of the online buzz; and the World Cup, part of daily life for millions around the world. People were glued to live streams and catching up on “basic soccer rules.” More players became household names: Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, Piala Dunia, Fabio Cannavaro, Iker Casillas.

For a game in which points scored can be counted on one hand, a surprising number of upsets kept the crowds entertained. At one point, the FIFA president offered apologies to England and Mexico for referee errors. The drama with Ghana, the only African semifinalist, ended in heartbreak when Uruguay, the only South American finalist, scored a penalty shoot-out to break the 1-1 tie.

The only reliable oracle turned out to be an octopus: Paul, an English expat making his home in Germany’s Sea Life center, “predicted” the winners in eight games. (Paul ended his two-year cephalopod lifespan on October 26 at the aquarium, which planned a shrine to mark his cremains.)

Finesse over fouls
By the end, finesse won out over fouls when Spain’s Andres Iniesta shot a goal in overtime, winning 1-0 over the Netherlands. The winning team’s bounty was $30 million (not including the $1 million that all 32 teams received for preparations), while the Netherlands contented itself with $24 million for second place. Teams that made the group stage or higher got consolation payouts ranging from $8 million to $20 million.

But most of all the 2010 World Cup came down to pageantry. The year was already primed to be one of the greats for international sports. The soccer tournament had its running theme of competitive machismo, but it was also about cultural exposure and shared pet peeves (that buzzing noise).

People exulted over wins, scrutinized the parade of flags, learned the “Waka Waka” song, added a few choice words to their vocabulary, and even learned to love the vuvuzela — at least, they did if that’s what searches on the horn’s history and “where to buy the vuvuzela” indicate.

Anticipation has already built up for 2014, which will be held at 12 cities in Brazil, where soccer is the nation’s most popular sport and all its players are known by a single name. No vuvuzelas there, but the world will expect a party from Carnival country.

–Vera H-C Chan