RUSTENBURG, South Africa—If you drive outside the main cities in South Africa, you will always find a fire burning. Beside a highway. In a field. On a dirt patch, men huddled around its warmth. I saw many such blazes on the road from Pretoria to Rustenburg as I made my way to the round of 16 match between the United States and Ghana. On Saturday night, the smoke from all of these fires seemed to pool in this hardscrabble mining town. It burdened the air, reducing visibility to a few feet, even with a full moon low in the sky. My traveling companions and I felt the hoodoo: Whatever happy energy once fueled the American adventure here had been replaced by apprehension. Perhaps my mood was colored by the fact that pickpockets had stolen my tickets the day before. With FIFA’s help, I found new ones outside of the U.S. supporters’ section. It didn’t matter. Most American fans had already gone home. Exactly two weeks ago, I’d had to push my way past Donovan and Dempsey jerseys into a nearby bar. Now the place was all but empty. In the smoke outside, I kept bumping into haunted-looking Englishmen who’d banked on their team winning Group C and playing its knockout game here. “Extra England ticket?” they whispered. “Trade? Trade?” We even saw a handwritten sign pleading for tickets, left on the ground, pinned down by rocks. But where were the Yanks? Maybe American fans felt their team wouldn’t make it this far. Maybe fewer of them gave a damn than I thought.
more from Luke O’Brien at Slate here.