Eight years ago this month, sports fans around the world crowded around TVs to watch the World Cup.
For 20-year-old Lebo Moloto, however, the World Cup meant something more: it was home.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup took place in Moloto’s native South Africa, making it the first-ever World Cup hosted on the African continent. As much as Moloto would have loved to join in on the world’s biggest event, he was busy trying to make his soccer dreams come true.
While his home country was in the global spotlight, Moloto was 8,000 miles away in the Midwestern United States playing for NAIA’s Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky and the PDL’s Des Moines Menace.
Even after being in the United States for at least a year at that point, the World Cup was enough to make him miss home.
“Made me a little bit homesick,” Moloto said of the 2010 World Cup. “I was a little bit homesick considering the fact that I would have loved to go home, but I was still in college, and I was playing PDL for the Menace. I think if there’s one thing that I regret, it would be not going home.”
Moloto grew up in Polokwane, a city in the northern part of South Africa. Ahead of the World Cup, a new stadium was built in his hometown to host tournament games. The new Peter Mokaba Stadium opened in Polokwane in 2010 and hosted four World Cup group stage matches, including a high-stakes Group A match between France and Mexico.
It was surreal for Moloto to see his hometown, with a population of 130,028, playing host to fans from around the world and some of the best soccer players on the planet. Even though he couldn’t be there himself, Moloto got by with a little help from his friends.
“I have a lot of friends back home that got to go,” he said. “I basically got to experience the World Cup through their eyes. They said it was one of the best things to have ever happened to the country.”
While Nashvillians might be starting to get used to being in the national soccer spotlight with events like the Gold Cup and a USA/Mexico friendly, that pales in comparison to the global attention brought on by the World Cup. The 2010 World Cup brought people and viewers to Moloto’s native homeland, and it’s followed him to this day.
“If you look at it, most people didn’t know about South Africa until the World Cup,” Moloto said. “Most people didn’t tour South Africa until the World Cup. Every time I say ‘I’m from South Africa,’ even in Nashville, people will be like ‘Oh, I went to the World Cup. We love South Africa, it’s a beautiful country.’ I think the economic aspect of it helped South Africa. People in general, everyone was just excited.”
In a soccer-crazed country that was only a couple decades removed from the ugly scars of Apartheid, the World Cup was a unifying moment for South Africa. People from all backgrounds came together to celebrate the global game and to celebrate each other.
“I remember when it got announced, everyone was excited,” Moloto said. “Everyone was happy, people were hugging, it didn’t matter. If you know South Africa, there’s a background of Apartheid, racial discrimination. But when that happened, blacks, whites, Indians, it brought everyone together, which is a pretty cool thing to see.”
With the 2018 edition of the World Cup upon us, plenty of fans from all walks of life will come together and find unity around the game of soccer. Nashville itself is a melting pot of cultures, one of the reasons why soccer has caught on so quickly in the Music City. For the next month, Nashvillians will be able to watch the global game, both on TV with the World Cup, and right at home with Nashville SC.