The vuvuzela: Inciting passions as much as the football
I was going to crack on with the science series, looking at fatigue, but something that I almost have to discuss is the controversy that is rapidly building momentum regarding the vuvuzela. This is the name of the traditional horn that South African football fans blow at football matches. If you have watched even one single minute of the action so far, you know exactly what it is. Either that, or you are concerned that every match is about to be halted by the world's largest swarm of bees.
Last year, when the world first met the vuvuzela during the Confederations Cup, there were reports that broadcasters in Europe received complaints from viewers who thought that the broadcaster had messed up the sound. Or they thought there was something wrong with the TV sets. Well, now, nine matches in, you know that the sound exists. The question is: How do you feel about it?
Growing resentment and patriotic defence
If you hate it, and find it impossible to sit through 90 minutes of a match, then you're not alone. In fact, your company is growing at an alarming rate. A facebook site called FIFA-Ban the annoying vuvuzela (horn) from the South Africa World Cup has been set up, and already it has over 60,000 members. More remarkably, in the 5 or 10 minutes that you might take to read this post, membership will have grown by about 200 people. And that's on a Sunday afternoon/evening. It seems destined to build even more in the week.
The controversy over the horn is nothing new. The complaints around the Confederations Cup last year led to discussion over a potential ban. That was met with patriotic fury from within South Africa, where the general consensus was that it was part of the atmosphere, the unique character of the tournament. Interestingly, some of the most vocal criticism now seems to be coming from SA, because the vuvuzela is being blown everywhere, not just in stadia. Shopping malls, airports, public places - the sound is ubiquitous and I think people's patience is wearing thin.
In the stadium, however, there was encouragement for its use, because it was felt that the horn, being so loud and so distracting to players, would give South Africa a home-ground advantage because we were the only team accustomed to it. This is debatable, and there are some good studies on home-ground advantage that I'll look at in future. But the ultimate result of this is that FIFA decided that the Vuvuzela will stay. Sepp Blatter announced that the vuvuzela will stay, and stay it has.
Medical and scientific concerns - hearing and illness
On a medical and scientific note, there are some concerns too. Studies have found that the noise levels from a vuvuzela exceed what are considered safe limits for employees. A Swiss-based company's testing showed that at its loudest, the sound registered 127 dB, compared to a chainsaw at 100 dB. In SA, a research study found that hearing was affected, and does not seem to return to normal for some time after being exposed to the sound. And that was just a few horns - the combined effects of perhaps 30,000 in a stadium are anyone's guess.
And then on a perhaps even more serious note, there are concerns over the spread of infection and illness as a result of 30,000 people blowing into the horn in an enclosed space. South Africa has one of the highest tuberculosis (TB) infection rates in the world, and it is spread through droplets, usually when coughing, spitting or sneezing. But what about blowing on a plastic horn? It's a real concern and is another reason why the safety has been questioned.
As for the players, they have complained. Lionel Messi, best in the world and who had a brilliant first game against Nigeria, said that it was "like being deaf", making communication impossible. Other players have described them as annoying, and Patrice Evra blamed it for France's poor showing against Uruguay, though I'm not sure even the most ardent hater of the horn would sympathize with this excuse. Unpleasant, perhaps. But I think this is a relatively minor concern, certainly not grounds to ban it.
My personal view is that it actually doesn't improve the atmosphere. A big part of the atmosphere comes from the crowd's responses to what happens on the field - they sing, cheer, gasp, boo and encourage, but the vuvuzela negates all of this, and so the match actually has no personality. There are no "valleys" or "peaks", no shifts, only one sound. If you had no commentary and your eyes were closed, different matches would be indistinguishable. And their constancy does build and build a level of irritation, which, combined with their sounds pretty much everywhere in South Africa, means I certainly would not complain at a ban.
The broadcaster & sponsor problem
Players and spectators aside, when the broadcasters or sponsors begin to complain to FIFA, then they must sit up and take notice. Few would defend FIFA for its commercial "muscle" (or greed, whichever one prefers, depending on your viewpoint), but two parties FIFA must look after are their sponsors and their broadcasters. Both pour enormous volumes of money into the organization, being the two largest sources of revenue by some margin.
And if viewership drops, then the value of both are diminished, and that, more than anything, will get FIFA's attention. If broadcasters lose viewership, then their potential advertising revenue drops, and that is no laughing matter. And so if viewership is down, then you can expect the big broadcasters to be leaning heavily on FIFA. So too, the sponsors need high viewership, because they track the success of their sponsorship partly based on "exposure", which basically means number of views. Fewer people watching means fewer views, reduced sponsor recognition or awareness, and while that won't affect FIFA's balance right now, it doesn't do much for happy sponsors. And happy sponsors tend to have bigger wallets.
So, bottom line, TV viewership holds the key. I will definitely be looking out for that, because I strongly suspect that the neutral fans, and maybe even some die-hard football fans will turn off unless really big teams are playing. The numbers will come out - will they be 20% lower than Germany 2006? Time zones are no excuse, and so this will be revealing.
What to do?
It's anyone's guess what will be done. Danny Jordaan, the head of the local organizing committee, hinted that they were relooking at it, having cleared it in the first place. His words, which confirm the complaints from all sides, are the most 'negative' from anyone involved in the tournament so far, and if I had to read between the lines, I'd say something is brewing. They certainly reveal that the complaints have been very vociferous, and from 'important' parties.
FIFA have said that they'll ban the vuvuzelas if there were "grounds to do so". Safety was the one criteria mentioned, and FIFA said they'd ban them if they were used as missiles. I guess if worst came to worst, FIFA could arrange for a few fans to throw their horns on the field and then issue a ban! Stranger things have happened, especially when massive money is involved!
Maybe the compromise is to have a block or two of the stands allocated for vuvuzelas. The problem is that tickets have been sold, and so most fans would not be in these zones. A straight ban is likely to create major discontent among local fans, accusations of racism, discrimination, exploitation are likely. I guess there is a sense in which you can understand the likely unhappiness.
Either way, one group of people will be unhappy, and having given SA the chance to host the party, it may be deemed ungrateful to keep the host from choosing their own "music". Difficult one for FIFA, that's for sure.
I'd love to know your thoughts, as always.