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Beacon blog Soccer widow: Looking back and ahead

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2010 - Every four years, the World Cup sets up camp in my life, defines my schedule (or at least how much of my husband I'll be seeing,) and introduces me to new places, players and plays.

And every four years, something specific stands out. You might think that, for 2010, it would be what I've tried to learn in order to write this column, or getting to watch the U.S. vs. England match with two local members of the 1950 team that beat England, or deciding, thanks to a little help from the country's winningest high school soccer coach, that my son should learn soccer naturally, at his own pace.

Instead, what stands out for 2010 is a single sound -- the vuvuzela.

I've gotten so used to the buzzing horn that's hummed through every single game in South Africa that when Jai, my husband, sat in from of the TV over the weekend, I didn't really understand what he was watching until I stopped and looked at the screen. It was soccer, MLS, with Landon Donovan home with the LA Galaxy. There were no vuvuzelas.

The games and the actual experience of this year's World Cup will be singular to another St. Louisian -- Chuck Korr. I found Korr thanks to a colleague, and it was through him that Jai and I learned about the local watch party for the U.S. vs. England match.

The very next day, Korr headed for South Africa to enjoy three weeks of the games and witness some history that he's helped document.

Korr, a professor emeritus in the department of history at the University of Missouri St. Louis, first traveled to South Africa years ago. Days before heading back to St. Louis on one trip, he got to peek inside the archives of Robben Island, the now well-known prison that held political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. Inside those boxes, Korr found a detailed history of sports on Robben Island, how prisoners had petitioned for years to form a soccer club, and how, once they won that right, they went to great effort to form a truly top-class league.

With research and interviews conducted over many more years, Korr co-wrote "More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid," documenting the lives of prisoners at Robben Island, the game they played and the fights they fought for soccer in their prison and freedom in South Africa.

Players included now-president Jacob Zuma and deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke.

But there were many other prisoners and players with untold stories, and Korr focused on them as well.

"It's not just a book to me. It's an important story about men that I think are special," Korr said on Thursday when I caught him on the phone a few days back from South Africa.

And he got to spend time with some of those men, taking a few along with their families to see a game, traveling back to Robben Island (international press in tow) for a tour, and speaking about the book and the significance of both the men and the game for South Africa.

Especially now.

"These men believed that there would be a free South Africa while they were still alive," Korr told a New York Times reporter in an article that ran recently . "They had every reason to believe that if it wasn't them, it would be people like them who would have to provide the administrative backbone. The cliche is that sport trains you for life -- no, it doesn't, but in this case, it did."

After Korr spoke to one group, Lizo Sitoto, a former prisoner and player, spoke for a few moments. He told the crowd what the World Cup and soccer meant to South Africa, that years ago, this is what the men on Robben Island were hoping for for their country.

And it's no small thing that South Africa has pulled these games off, Korr told me. Yes, ticket sales were out of reach of some local people.

But the fear Korr thought the international press created about safety for foreigners wasn't an issue. As far as he knows, there was only one incident of violence against a visitor.

Instead, Korr met fans from 15 countries. They were all having a fantastic time.

He attended three games, including England vs. Algeria, Portugal vs. Brazil and Brazil vs. Netherlands. At the first two games, anyway, Korr found that the soccer played was mediocre, but that didn't matter.

"The best part for me was seeing South Africans of all races absolutely delighting in the fact that they had pulled it off, and the whole world was there," Korr said. "It's hard to tell what was more important to them -- the fact that they were showing the world they were doing it, or the fact they were showing themselves they were doing it."

So we're down to the finals now after nearly a month of play, and it will be Spain vs. the Netherlands on Sunday in Johannesburg.

My husband is a bit down that no South American countries have a chance to win. But I know he's already looking four years down the road to the next World Cup, which will be in Brazil. He's told me many times over the years that our family will be going.

And while I miss him and coherent conversations during these games, I do have to admit that in four years, I will not mind being a soccer widow one bit if I'm listening to the sounds of the game live and writing to you from Rio.

Until then ...

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