JOHANNESBURG, June 4, 2010 -- Millions of soccer fans will be watching the World Cup in South Africa starting next week, cheering on their favorite teams. But in this soccer-crazed country, true fans know that cheering and screaming aren't good enough.
That's why there's the vuvuzela.
The plastic noise-maker is a very South African way of paying homage to the game. When blown correctly, it makes a loud, and fans say inspiring, cacophony. For South Africans, vuvuzelas are to soccer what hot dogs are to baseball. No game is complete without them.
"Going into a stadium without a vuvuzela is like going to war and being unarmed," says Petey Mthethwa, a worker from Lumoss Mouldings, a vuvuzela-manufacturing company in Johannesburg.
But not everyone sees it that way. Fans and competitors from outside South Africa often complain that today's vuvuzela doesn't inspire fear or amazement, just irritation, and that its sound is a loud, unwelcome and unpleasant distraction.
After last year's Confederations Cup, thousands of fans from all over the world sent e-mails and letters to the FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), urging it to ban the vuvuzela from the World Cup, something the soccer-governing body considered.
Beyond the instrument's incessant drone, the FIFA worried that drunken fans would use it as a weapon, throwing it onto the field, or that companies would print unsanctioned advertisements on the horn.
Ultimately, South Africa prevailed, and FIFA decided against the ban, calling the vuvuzela "essential" to the African football experience. Banning the horn, FIFA's communications director Hans Klaus told reporters last year, would be akin to taking away the cowbells from Swiss soccer fans and banning English soccer fanatics from singing.
"We approach this in a relaxed manner," said Klaus. "I am convinced the vuvuzelas will be a hit at the World Cup. It will be a World Cup with African sound."
Apparently, the vuvuzela is too entrenched in South African culture to outlaw. While the exact origins of this stadium blower are disputed, legend has it that the plastic horn harks back to a time when South African warriors blew antelope horns to call villagers to meetings, to announce their arrival at battles or to strike fear in the hearts of heir opponents.
Vuvuzela at World Cup Might Be Tough for Foreign Fans in More Ways Than One
Although South African soccer fanatics should have no problems, the number of foreign fans who will know how to properly blow the instrument is another matter.
The vuvuzela is not a typical noise-maker.
Getting the sound right takes some skill and a lot of lung capacity. A true vuvuzela cacophony will need legions of soccer fans with puffed-out cheeks, looking like Dizzy Gillepsie or Louis Amstrong, blowing their trumpets.
It won't sound like world-class jazz, but, love it or hate it, it will add a distinctively African soundtrack to the global game.