Vuvuzela innovator cashes in

2010-06-19 07:31

Cape Town - If only defender Neil Van Schalkwyk had not scored an equaliser for the Santos Cape Town youth team against Battswood 15 years ago, the whole blaring brouhaha over the vuvuzela might never have come to dominate the World Cup.

Amid the crowd's celebrations that day, he suddenly saw a long homemade tin trumpet being blown - and an idea was born.

"That is the moment that stuck," said Van Schalkwyk, who calls himself the innovator of the local trumpet that is loved by South Africans but has drawn a deluge of complaints from TV viewers around the world.

Working in a plastics factory, Van Schalkwyk figured there had to be some way to produce a similar trumpet with the same deafening sound. After hours, he set off working.

"I lost a lot of sleep," the 37-year old Van Schalkwyk said. "Now, my apologies to those who are visiting that they are losing a bit of sleep," as the sound of the trumpets can be heard deep in the Cape Town nights.

By now, thousands of his vuvuzelas are sold with earplugs included. If that doesn't make much sense, little has since Van Schalkwyk started commercializing his plastic trumpets a decade ago.

He began with 500 trumpets in 2001 and a year later came the breakthrough when a corporate company bought 20,000 as a promotion.

"It was, wow, this is the ultimate achievement," he said.

It was only a beginning.

He could not trademark the horn itself, "because a trumpet is a trumpet and has been around for centuries", he said. So his company Masincedane Sport trademark protected the name "vuvuzela" instead. He defines the term as "to sprinkle you, to shower you with noise".

Now Russians are knocking on his business door, as are Brazilians, for cooperation deals get the real "vuvuzelas" there too.

"It happened in the past few days. It looks like the vuvuzela is going to Russia," he said.

Through the German company Urbas-Kehrberg, Van Schalkwyk already gets a percentage on European Union sales.

The craze is global. There are YouTube videos about them, and in Germany they have to make clear the difference between the trumpets and their beloved former striker Uwe Seeler, since the pronunciation is almost identical.

They even showed up at Boston's Fenway Park, adding decibels to a baseball game between the Red Sox and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Even the Miami Marlins are giving away 15 000 air horns, slightly smaller than the vuvuzela, to fans at Saturday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Of course, far from everyone is a fan.

In France, they dislike the din, reminiscent of a swarm of angry bees, so much a cable TV channel offers vuvuzela-free broadcasts for all World Cup matches, with the trumpets digitally tuned out.

Players have been criticising the noise because they cannot take advice from the bench, and visiting fans have no chance for community singing amid the noise.

The vuvuzela did suffer a rare loss on Friday, when the tens of thousands of English fans encouraged their team early on with shouts of "England, England." As English hopes sagged in the scoreless draw with Algeria, the vuvuzelas quickly took over again.

And even England coach Fabio Capello saw the advantage. When the players were roundly booed at the end of the match, he simply said. "I don't hear the boo of the people because vuvuzela. Vuvuzela, I don't know if it is vuvuzela or boo."

FIFA president Sepp Blatter has been leading the defence though, much to Van Schalkwyk's pleasure, calling it essentially African.

And even Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu has come out in defence of the deafening blare that has come to define the World Cup.

"It is amazing to see how it has transcended all levels of society," Van Schalkwyk said. "I mean that Archbishop Desmond Tutu can actually come out and defend it, considering all the criticism. Out of respect for the way that we celebrate football, people should also take that into consideration."

In the meantime, his company is putting 100 people to work during the World Cup. And of the turnover of R7m over the past decade, half of it has come in the past year.

With souvenir vuvuzelas selling for as little as $5, tens of thousands of fans are expected to return home from South Africa with a couple in their bags. In Britain, grocery store chain Sainsbury's said it had sold 43 000 vuvuzelas at a cost of £2 each.

In South Africa, Van Schalkwyk thinks about a quarter of the estimated 2 million football trumpets are certified vuvuzelas.

While England's stadiums have been heaving to community singing for decades, it was always different in South Africa.

"We got 11 different languages and certain songs are not understood by everyone. There is one language they do understand and it is the vuvuzela," Van Schalkwyk said.

He dismisses the players' complaints about the noise, saying that after Spain exited last years Confederations Cup, where the world at large first got to know the vuvuzelas, the players still took many home in their luggage.

"After Argentina's performance, Lionel Messi will not be complaining about the vuvuzela bothering him," he said.

Spain already took its precautions on Friday and enlisted the help of some local football fans to help the players get used to the sound of the vuvuzela at training sessions.

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