The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 29, 2010

Worlds apart

Former Westmont player gets fresh view of soccer

Eric Knopsnyder
The Tribune-Democrat

JOHNSTOWN — Lauren Borsa played soccer at Westmont Hilltop and thought she understood the sport, but the 22-year-old, who is on a mission trip to South Africa, has gotten a new appreciation for the beautiful game with the World Cup swirling around her adopted country.

Borsa has spent most of the past

11 months in Bloemfontein, one of the nine host cities for the world’s biggest sporting event. During her time there Borsa saw the excitement building for the June 11 opener.

“I got here when there were about

300 days to the World Cup, so we’ve been able to experience the whole buildup.

“There’s been so much construction,” she said in a telephone interview from Bloemfontein on Tuesday. “They definitely seemed to pull everything off. It’s been so much fun to see the atmosphere of the country. They’re so proud to have it here.”

Borsa has been able to attend three World Cup games thus far. She made the four-hour bus trip to Johannesburg for the United States’ match with Slovenia on June 18. She and two face-painted friends managed to draw the attention of a professional photographer, who snapped an image that eventually found its way on to espn.com, where Borsa’s sister, Kara, spotted it.

“The atmosphere was so much fun,” said Borsa, who grew up in Upper Yoder Township and played defense for Westmont’s high school team. “For my program, there are about 10 of us from the States. It was really cool to be around Americans (at the game) since we haven’t in so long. The atmosphere was great.

“There were a lot of people from the States. It was so fun to mingle with people and see where they were from and see how many people have traveled to South Africa for it.”

Borsa and her friends had bought their tickets in South Africa, so they were separated from the majority of the American fans once the game began.

After the USA fell behind 2-0, the mood was considerably different.

“We were discouraged during the first half,” she admitted.

But Landon Donovan scored early in the second half, and Michael Bradley tied the game at 2.

“Once we scored our first goal, we thought we could come back,” Borsa said.

“The second goal, we went completely crazy.”

Then came the controversy, as the United States’ Maurice Edu appeared to score the go-ahead goal, but a mysterious foul call wiped it out, disappointing Borsa and millions of other United States fans around the world.

“When we thought we scored the third goal and they called it back, it was a little sad,” she said.

But for Borsa, the whole experience was enjoyable, as she was able to bond with fellow Americans.

“It was just exciting to be proud of our country and embrace being American, which I hadn’t really done in the last

10 months,” she said. “I’ve been trying to become more South African.”

She was able to do that on June 22, when she donned the colors of South Africa’s flag for its match with France in Bloemfontein. Bafana Bafana, as the host country’s team is affectionately known, beat France 2-1 to eliminate the defending runners-up.

“Because it was Bafana’s last game, and because they were hoping that they could make it to the last round, the atmosphere was unbelievable,” she said. “The South African people were so excited to display their team. I guess that was because their last game against Uruguay didn’t end so well. The vuvuzelas were so loud. Everyone was so excited to be there. It was exciting for me to see the city I had been in the for the last 11 months come alive. It was so great to see all of that green and yellow in the stands.”

Despite the victory South Africa became the first host country eliminated before the second round, but Borsa said there is still plenty of enthusiasm around the country for the remaining games. Borsa even took in a game as a neutral observer, attending Germany’s 4-1 second-round victory over England on Sunday.

“That was completely different,” she said. “All three had different vibes because of the different countries playing.”

The vuvuzelas, the African horns that have drawn so much attention (and criticism) during the past few weeks, weren’t as prevalent during that match, but Borsa said that she hasn’t minded them.

“If they’re blowing in your ear, it’s terrible,” she said. “But they’re not as bad as the TV might make it seem.”

English fans have a reputation for hooliganism, but Borsa said she never feared for her safety at the match.

“No, I was actually excited. I enjoy watching sports. I like the atmosphere of having people involved in the game. I did have a few English fans not being so nice to me during the USA game, so I wasn’t too upset they lost,” she said.

“I wasn’t worried about the whole English atmosphere. It was cool to hear the cheering and chanting. That game, the vuvuzelas weren’t that bad. I don’t know if it was because it was a different crowd.

“They were chanting and singing songs. That was very cool as well.”

Borsa has been to some big-time sporting events, but said the World Cup matches are different than anything she’s ever experienced.

“I went to Penn State, so football was a big thing, but I would have to say that the mix of people is completely different,” she said. “It’s so cool to be among so many nationalities all in one place.”

The World Cup might be all-encompassing in South Africa right now, but there’s a much bigger picture for Borsa, who is a member of the Moxham Lutheran Church and is in the country as part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Even though South Africa is the most economically developed country on the continent, Borsa said there is still a wide gap between economic classes.

“There is a lot of polarization with the wealthy and the poor,” said Borsa, who works in poverty-stricken sections of Bloemfontein. “In South Africa, I guess there is more of the middle class like you’d find at home, but there definitely is the well-off and not-well-off. It’s important to be a part of those communities and work with them, to have an understanding of that. At home, it’s either well hidden or I’m not as exposed to it.”

Borsa, who will enter graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh to pursue a master’s degree in international development when she returns to the U.S., expects her exposure to soccer to have a lasting impact.

“I think so, most definitely,” she said. “I will watch a little more, even though I don’t have a lot of time. It makes me want to play again, myself.”