The noise was relentless: a monotone droning that seemed like it might never end. In the stands, they blew their horns with vigour and enthusiasm, unconcerned by those begging for it to stop. This was a celebration, of Africa, of South Africa, and the vuvuzela was an essential part of it.
Whatever your view of this long, plastic horn – and most people who watched the 2010 World Cup at home, on television, will admit to increasing levels of annoyance as the tournament progressed – it is impossible to argue that the soundtrack created by the vuvuzela did not give this particular World Cup a distinctive, unique atmosphere.
And perhaps that was important. This was Africa’s first World Cup. It had been a long time coming and most fans wanted each match to be a 90-minute party. The buzzing of vuvuzelas certainly conjured up an image of joy – like the collective beeping of car horns after a revolution.
The problem, though, was the sheer intensity of the noise. The vuvuzela’s Wikipedia page informs readers that the horn, in its earliest inceptions, “was used to summon distant villagers to attend community gatherings”. The key word there is ‘distant’. Fans at the World Cup, and indeed players, were very close to each other. Had you been sitting in between two especially eager vuvuzela users, there was a very real possibility that you might have your eardrums blown to pieces.
That is an exaggeration, of course, but research into the effects of vuvuzelas on fans’ hearing proved telling. Academics from Pretoria University revealed that the average sound exposure during a game at the World Cup was 100.5 decibels, with a peak of 144.2 decibels. That is very high.
“Since I am South African, and having have had my own vuvuzela, the memories of people blowing them next to your ear prompted me to make the assumption that vuvuzelas are not good for the ears,” Dr Dirk Koekemoer, one of the academics involved in the study, tells The Independent. “What surprised me was the fact that vuvuzelas produced four times more noise than I guessed. The evidence showed that the noise produced was so loud that, even with ear protection of about 25 decibels, the noise could still damage the ear over the period of a soccer match.”
For South Africans, including Dr Koekemoer, it was difficult to separate the symbolism of the vuvuzela with the potentially dangerous health risks. A few games into the World Cup, the horn had become a feature, an accompaniment to the action on the pitch. It was part of the country’s footballing culture, too, always heard from miles away during the Soweto derby between Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
The World Cup brought vuvuzelas to a global audience, and many simply rejected it. Broadcasters eventually introduced the option of changing the sound frequencies in an attempt to drown out the noise, but that only succeeded in creating something artificial.
There was no such option for the players, some of whom complained. It was, they said, off-putting. That is not surprising. Vuvuzelas are hardly conducive to clarity of thought.
“I find these vuvuzelas annoying,” said Spain’s Xabi Alonso. “They don’t contribute to the atmosphere in the stadium. They should put a ban on them.”
There was no ban (at least at the World Cup) and, in the end, it did not seem to hinder Spain much. Their passing game was as efficient and fluid as ever, and Alonso and his teammates lifted the gold trophy to a backing track of horn blowing in Johannesburg.
Alonso, had he been concerned about Tinnitus or lasting hearing damage, might have had a point. There was not, at any point during the summer of 2010, a moment of respite from vuvuzelas. When a goal was scored, the horns briefly abated and were replaced by shouts and cheers. But a matter of milliseconds later they were back, now louder than ever. It was, to borrow a phrase from David Mitchell, constant, dizzying and quite feasibly maddening for those exposed for too long.
“We can’t sleep at night because of the vuvuzelas,” Patrice Evra said, his eyes glazed over. “People start playing them from 6am. We can’t hear one another out on the pitch because of them.”
Other players, like Cristiano Ronaldo, were able to acclimatise to the noise. The sheer volume remained an issue, though.
“At the time of the World Cup, I thought that the South African culture of vuvuzelas and all the fun going with it was an important attraction and probably one of the reasons why people attended the World Cup,” says Dr Koekemoer. “It was only later that I learned our numbers were probably down because of the thundering sounds of vuvuzelas.”
For Dr Koekemoer’s colleague in Pretoria, De Wet Swanepoel, there were “mixed feelings”. “For those in the stadiums, many felt that they contributed to the atmosphere,” he tells The Independent. “For listeners, over television, it created a monotonous buzz that was irritating to many. Our main concern was to see what risks they posed to hearing damage, which is a significant public health concern considering that this type of damage can be permanent and irreversible. The vuvuzela can be dangerously loud for your ears and we did see some temporary shifts in hearing after a single football match where vuvuzelas were used.”
It was little surprise, then, that following the World Cup the vuvuzela was banned at dozens of stadiums and events, including Wembley, the Millennium Stadium, the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, and (most understandably) Wimbledon. One stray vuvuzela on Centre Court would probably have been enough to permanently shatter the composure of even Roger Federer.
These three-foot long horns, which effectively give human beings the capacity to generate as much noise as a herd of irate elephants, are still out there. They are still used in South Africa, still blaring relentlessly down the ear canals of innocent passers-by. And they are still, quite clearly, far too loud.
But let us, just for a moment, reflect on their legacy. Viewers of the 2010 World Cup may have hated the vuvuzela. They may, by the end of the tournament, have seethed with rage at the mere sight of an elongated, red plastic horn. But they will always remember them. That South Africa’s World Cup was made memorable by the sights and sounds, and not the mostly underwhelming football, is almost certainly not a bad thing.