June 30, 2010
Gandhi's rebuilt cottage in Durban.
It’s hard to find the Mahatma in Durban. I’m not talking metaphorically, though non-violence is not listed as one of Durban’s attractions. I was looking for evidence of the man whose concept of non-violent protest began right here in South Africa - specifically in Durban, where he arrived as a fresh-faced lawyer in 1893 and was shocked to see the living and working conditions for the non-whites.
It was in Durban that Gandhi set up his famous Phoenix community farm in 1904, apparently inspired by the philosophy of John Ruskin. It was his first shot at community living, which he later perfected more famously at the Tolstoy Farm and in the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad; it’s also where he published his influential paper Indian Opinion. I’m not a flag-waving, card-carrying peacenik, nor am I overly nationalistic or patriotic but in this land of Mandela, I was curious to see how the man who inspired him was remembered.
Not much, it seems - not among the younger generation. Ask any ordinary person in Durban about him and you’ll get a blank look. I got one from the guide on the “rickshaw tour” I took. Gandhi, to him, was the Mahatma Gandhi Road that ran along the harbor. When our tour bus reached that place, the guide announced the street name and launched immediately into an explanation of how street names were being changed to honour anti-apartheid activists. Any attempt at cross-questioning drew a blank.
The Durban fan’s guide I picked up listed the Phoenix Settlement but the listed number kept ringing and I got another blank look when I asked about it at the hotel. Finally the receptionist got in touch with a cabbie who seemed to know where it was. Theo was in his late 50s and first thought I wanted to go to the Phoenix industrial area, where the settlement is located; when told of my actual destination, he was visibly surprised but was too polite - or simply too laconic, like his drawl - to say anything.
The township is a sprawling collection of factories, offices and auto workshops; one of the factories housed a major alcohol-manufacturing unit, which seemed ironic given the Mahatma’s stand on drinking. Past that, and up a dusty side road through a slum lies what remains of Phoenix Settlement. I say “what remains” because most of the buildings were razed during racial violence in 1985; the buildings that stand now were built in the original style.
I saw “Sarvodaya”, the cottage where Gandhi stayed with his immediate family. The building - it would be called a 2BHK back home (two bedroom, hall, kitchen) - has been rebuilt but the red-oxide floor is the original. Not only is it no more than a decade old, it is currently empty, undergoing renovation, making it even harder to imagine what it must have been like.
The building once housing the printing press is similarly empty, save for a series of photographs on the walls. There’s Gandhi, and some of his letters, and Albert Lithulu, ANC leader and Nobel prize-winner, and Isaiah Shembe, the indigenous preacher. There are few pictures of life at Phoenix in the early 20th century. One room has a counter selling Zulu artefacts.
The only original standing structure, such as it is, is the school Gandhi’s wife Kasturba ran; a shell of burnt-out walls, it lies beyond the settlement’s current perimeter, visible only through thorny brush and barbed wire. It is approached through a parking lot for some of the city’s many cabs; I’m advised gently by Theo not to venture that far. Only the sight of a group of workers planting trees and saplings approximates to any a Gandhian existence.
My guide for this ten-minute tour is Bongani, a man in his 20s whose youth is reassuring. He’s been reeling off the standard spiel about Gandhi’s life, and rather more on Luthuli and Shembe. I ask him what Gandhi means to him, why he is here. “I’m a tourist guide, this is my job.”
I get a very different perspective later that evening, driving into Cape Town from the airport. I tell Noah, my cabbie, what I’ve seen in Durban. He fishes out his mobile phone and shows me the screensaver. Through all the text and logos I can make out it is a very stylized image of the Mahatma. Why, I ask him, why Gandhi? “It’s very simple. Without the Mahatma there would not have been a Mandela. And without Mandela I would not be driving you around.”
True. Without Gandhi, would I have been here in South Africa covering the World Cup? I did find the Mahatma after all; not in his Durban farm but in Noah’s clear and simple thought.
Loftus Versfeld stadium: Closed for business
A rest day, two of them in fact, what now for the frazzled football journalist? Tuesday was the 19th straight day of matches. I myself have travelled to 16 games on those days, a quarter of all fixtures that will be played in this tournament, though I lag far behind a colleague and friend who has attended one a day, no quarter asked and none given either. Of the 32 teams who made their way to these finals I have seen 22 play. Despite the fulsome and hugely welcome list of things to do and see on this pair of free days, there are definite withdrawal symptoms being felt.
It barely seems a proper day without the strapping on of accreditation pass, a scramble for desk space in a packed media centre and a queue for match tickets that must be swiftly followed by careful negotiations for mixed zone or press conference passes. My friends and family must beware on my return to England; I have become institutionalised and am beginning to fear if I can actually talk about anything other than football. How will I be able to stomach anything other than the chicken burgers that are actually the only in-any-way-approaching edible items from the FIFA media food concession? Will the experiments with heavy caffeine use that have sustained my tired mind and body have any long-term effects on my health?
For four of the venues that have hosted South Africa 2010, the show is already over, the circus having skipped town for the last time. My visit to Pretoria on Tuesday saw the bringing down of the World Cup curtain on Loftus Versfeld, a stadium I have enjoyed. As with Rustenberg on the previous Saturday, the staff were making sure that we knew that this would the last time, to paraphrase fellow stadium denizen Mick Jagger. The ending of the Portugal-Spain clash saw the flat-screen televisions that relay matches, press conferences and other information to journalists not just being switched off but dismantled before our very eyes. Nor were the handy fact-sheets that tell the story of each game handed out. This place was closing for business.
Despite an announcement claiming the centre would be open again on Wednesday it will be a husk of a building that greets the hardy journalistic visit to Loftus. You'll be lucky to get a packet of crisps, let alone a chicken burger.
Just eight teams left too, with a healthy supply of surprise packages to stand in for the European giants whose performances have flown in the face of heavy pre-tournament endorsements and advertising. There is something refreshing in that, a proof that a World Cup cannot yet, on the field at least, be dictated to by commerce. This is not yet fully an entertainment franchise, despite the attitude of some of its audience.
For me, there is a fortnight to go in South Africa, and a maximum of four more games to attend, if I retain vain and vague hopes of getting into the final itself. The end will soon be nigh. And that's a very confusing emotion indeed.
June 29, 2010
A coach displays the allied aims of Spain and Portugal.
© Getty Images
At the bustling Long Street Cafe the battle lines are drawn emphatically, if covertly. Red is the prevailing colour, of course, with green and yellow marking the boundaries of Iberian affiliation. Another marker makes itself known when the day’s first game kicks off: there’s loud cheering from some of the patrons when Paraguay attack but others sit stonily silent.
At Green Point Stadium, closer to kick-off, the boundaries are less sharply defined. The vagaries of FIFA’s ticketing system means Iberia largely sits en bloc, though there are pockets of yellow and green. The last time Portugal played here, a week ago, they annihilated North Korea in front of a large posse of travelling fans. It seems most of those fans have gone home but there’s still a sizeable cheering squad, thanks to Portugal’s historical ties with South Africa dating back to the days of Vasco da Gama.
“We are proud to be Portuguese fans,” says Jose, a supermarket worker who’s come with his wife Linda. He missed the North Korea game - she didn’t - and has been itching for tonight. Isn’t the weather a put-off? “It’s cold but we’re all used to it,” he says. “And the pitch is wet, it will help the football.” Salvi, from Seville but now living in London, agrees. Then adds the rider: “It will help us more, though we don’t really need the help.”
Among the neutrals, there’s no contest – it’s the reign of Spain. “They just play so beautifully, don’t they?” says Chris, an England fan who’s driven down from Nairobi. He’s got over the blowout in Bloemfontein and is ready to cheer for La Furia Roja. “Portugal are good, Ronaldo is great, but Spain as a team just take it one level higher.”
He’s lucky, he has a ticket - bought several months ago. Not so lucky is Nikhil, an Indian software engineer now working in the US. He’s down on vacation but hasn’t been able to get a ticket. Why Spain? I ask him. “Fabregas, more than anything else. I’m an Arsenal fan so I’m a bit biased but the way Fabregas plays…I guess that’s the way the team plays, that’s why I love watching them.” He was last seen running off to the ticket office in the hope of striking lucky.
The rivalry on the pitch isn’t really reflected off it in the manner of, say, Japan and South Korea (though are there any surviving rivalries in this increasingly flat world?). Indeed, that flat world has seen Portugal’s two best players of the past 20 years play in Spain - one for both top clubs in Luis Figo - and Ronaldo is joined in the Portugal line-up by his Real Madrid teammate Pepe. There’s more: Carlos Quieroz, the Portugal coach, spent a year at Real Madrid as a successor to his opposite number, Vicente del Bosque.
Their footballing ties are deep enough for the two countries to put forward a joint bid for one of the two World Cups after Brazil - there’s a truck parked just outside the stadium that bears the diplomatic message of the bid. Politically, too, there is communion; opinion polls - at least in Portugal - suggest more takers than you’d think for a unification, with the capital in Madrid. It helps that Spain’s King Juan Carlos transcends boundaries - he spent much of his exile at the family home in Estoril, Portugal.
Eventually the rain holds up. The weather settles at 13 degrees but it seems more, there is none of the chilly wind that can subtract half-a-dozen degrees from the night temperature. The teams come out, the national anthems are shaded by the Spanish fans - though the rousing Portuguese chorus calling men to arms is stirring and reminiscent of Le Marsellaise. Once play gets underway the signs emerge pretty soon of how this night is going to end; indeed the Spanish have much more to cheer right through the game, and well before the end the oles ring out as the Spanish play their favoured passing game.
But the Portuguese fans have an ace up their sleeve: if the crowd seems unusually excited whenever Ronaldo gets the ball, it’s not just his usual wow factor - a large number of South Africans with Portuguese blood emigrated from Madeira, the same island their captain calls home. The “Marry Me” signs make their appearance but unfortunately the man himself does the disappearing act. When Villa gets his goal in it’s all over, you know there’s no way back for Portugal. Even old Vasco himself wouldn’t be able to plot a way out of this.
At the end I catch up again with Jose and Linda. He shrugs. “They were better. Good luck to them. Maybe they can go all the way.” Will he celebrate if Spain win the World Cup? “Of course. Not because it is Spain but because they play good football.” That 2018 bid has legs, then.
I try to catch Spanish fans but they are too caught up in the moment - and in a hurry to get to the nearest bar. There are several on my walk home, I’ll pop in and share a glass with them. Tonight’s the night for red.
The five hotel staff who robbed the England team of £485, a FIFA medal and personal belongings, including their underwear, were fined the equivalent of £525 or three years imprisonment on Monday. Police found the team’s belongings at the homes of the five convicted in Rustenburg. Justice in South Africa has never been meted out so quickly.
The World Cup courts have provided convictions quicker that ever throughout the tournament. When three foreign journalists were robbed at gunpoint in Magaliesburg before the tournament started, it took three days from the incident for them to be arrested, convicted and start serving 15-year jail sentences. In Cape Town, a woman who stole a Japanese tourist’s bag was convicted the same day.
To continue with this list would make South Africa seem like a model state, where crime is punished sternly and quickly. In fact, that's exactly what the country has become since the World Cup. Since the special courts were launched a month ago, 142 cases have been heard and 64 people have been found guilty. Of those, most of the suspects actually pleaded guilty because police had watertight evidence against them.
Sounds like a very slick professional, crime fighting outfit. Perhaps they may also find the car, cellphone and handbag that have been stolen from this writer over the past three years. If the World Cup courts and their etiquette can stay even after the tournament has gone, anything’s possible.
Fans watch a 3D broadcast of a match at Mandela Square in Johannesburg
© Getty Images
Whether FIFA is ready to introduce technology into the game remains to be seen, but cinemas in South Africa are. For the first time, the World Cup has been broadcast in 3D and the experience, while leaving something to be desired, is totally different from that of the stadium.
Movie etiquette prevails and that means there is relative quiet. No vuvuzelas or noise-making horns of any description. It also means hardly any sound at all. I was reminded a bit of Wimbledon, where people clap politely after every point. Restrained clapping after each of Brazil’s three goals against Chile in their second-round match was the most passionate the viewers got.
A few oohs and aaahs could be heard every time Chile got into the area but throughout other phases of play, there was silence. Not even a small droning chatter. Silence. A movie theatre doesn’t lend itself to extravagant support, like a pub, and there is no room to jump up and down. It’s also completely dark and that must have a subduing effect on people. Not only can you not see the person next to you to know if they’d be open to a high five after a goal, but you also can’t see if you’re going to be high-fiving them or slapping their nose off in the non-light.
The actual broadcast was not nearly as spectacular as movies in 3D, such as Alice in Wonderland. Of course it can’t be expected to be as Chilean coach Marcelo Bielsa, who I heard described as good looking by the commentator, is no Johnny Depp and Dunga has some way to go before he will beam like the Cheshire Cat. The ball often looks like a moving smudge, particularly if it’s being passed quickly. Perhaps the 3D system is not designed to cope well with quick movement yet and it does need to some improvement. The graphics cut off at the bottom of the screen, which meant all the statistics disappeared and there was no clock visible through the match.
That said, the shots of the crowd and the stadiums were dynamic. The Brazilian fans with their musical instruments stood out like cardboard cut-outs in a children’s pop-up book and looked fantastically charming. One thing that couldn’t be missed was how cold they all looked - making one grateful that, although the movie theatre can’t match the stadium, at least it’s warm.
A women’s magazine in South Africa, Shape, ran an article about protecting one’s waistline during the World Cup. The piece was aimed at women, who make up a surprisingly large portion of spectators at games. Shape recommended some healthy alternatives that girls are likely to find at a stadium such as a wrap filled with fresh veggies and beef strips, Chinese food, chicken noodle soup or falafel in a pita with salad and tahini and ‘lite’ beer.
Wonderful ideas, except that it looks as though the Shape journalists have never been in a stadium precinct in their lives, much less in this World Cup. FIFA has brought many good things to South Africa, but food isn’t one of them. The poor choice at stadiums has been particularly noticeable - more so because, for the average fan, a trip to the stadium is at least a six-hour affair from the time they leave home to the time they get back.
Thus far, hotdog rolls (most of them pork, leaving the Muslim and Jewish populations hungry), sandwiches that claim to be chicken mayonnaise but look more like squashed gerbil, muffins, chocolate, biltong and ice cream are all I’ve found to eat. ‘Lite’ beer doesn’t exist but Coke Zero and water do. It’s likely that the consumption of all cold drinks was less than expected because the weather had called for coffee and hot chocolate to be the two items most in demand at night games. It’s a limited and generally unhealthy menu, which does little for the image of football’s governing body.
Health might not be the primary concern of FIFA (especially since McDonald’s is one of their sponsors) but variety surely is. They would do well to examine what’s available at the park and rides, such as Constitution Hill. One vendor sells roti rolls, samosas, curries, bunny chows (hollowed out bread with a filling) and a variety of sandwiches. Another retails the precious falafel, and drinks other than Budweiser are freely available. It’s no wonder that most people are filling up before and warming their hands and lips on hot chocolate at stadiums.
June 28, 2010
Arjen Robben takes a trip into the bowels of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
© Getty Images
After the highs of Super Sunday, with all its controversy and the cumulative nine goals, Netherlands v Slovakia was drab and lifeless for large parts despite promising so much. Both halves began brightly before falling away and even the drama of the injury-time penalty never really threatened to change the course of the game - or of the impression of being left unsated.
A few stray thoughts, then, from the game.
Firstly, the simple route to goal can be as exhilarating to watch as the elaborate set-up. Holland’s second goal today was simplicity itself - a free kick, controlled and passed through, killed with the first touch and slotted in. Yet the speed and the clarity of the execution, which took Slovakia completely by surprise, was a joy to watch. The first goal was similarly direct, a combination of Wesley Sneijder’s vision and laser-like accuracy - that ball must have travelled more than 50 yards crossfield, left to right where Arjen Robben waited - and the latter’s dexterity and ability to thread the ball between defenders and beat the 'keeper at his near post. The multi-pass goal has its own beauty - and everyone can recall that 25-pass goal from four years ago - but sometimes Route One makes the heart beat just that much faster.
Secondly, smaller teams can do well in the World Cup - as Dunga said recently, it’s a more level playing field. They can push the bigger teams but to complete the job they must believe in themselves and pull the trigger with more conviction. For a considerable part of the game in Durban, Slovakia played as they did against Italy in that historic win for them. To quote fellow Soccernet writer Maura Gladys, writing after the Italy game:
"Fighting on the endline and sidelines for possession, fighting in the midfield, in the air. Fighting for the little things. And because of that fight and that hustle, they began to make something out of nothing."
Yet they lacked a couple of essentials: One, the final touch to convert the killer ball. And two, the self-belief to pull off - or at least try and pull off - another upset. It seemed they had not yet recovered from the emotionally draining game last week. Perhaps they thought they had done it all; they must believe, especially here in Africa, where things just happen.
Finally, the Moses Mabhida stadium, a wonderful piece of architecture, the best of the three I’ve seen so far (Cape Town and Port Elizabeth being the others). It has a wonderful, open feel to it - perhaps the mild weather on both matchdays helped - and the crowd was the most fun. The train station is a minute’s walk away, there are enough toilets and one doesn’t have to climb as many flights of stairs as at, say, Port Elizabeth.
There are two complaints, though, and I write on behalf of my colleagues: the cafeteria in the media centre is probably the worst among all (and certainly the worst among the three big towns). The queue for food could take 20 minutes to clear, the coffee machines may not be working by the time you get there and there isn’t much to eat anyway after a four o’clock game.
Second, and more serious, the media bus is parked, for some absurd reason, a ten-minute walk from the stadium - a pretty desolate stretch past the walls of the neighbouring ABSA Stadium and terminating in a clump of trees without much streetlight. Great if you’re in a group or in daylight, but not if you are alone and lugging expensive equipment. It could be a very bitter ending to what would have otherwise been a happy experience.
Traffic has been an issue in South Africa.
© Getty Images
There are no more games in Rustenberg – and thank goodness. The route from Pretoria to the Royal Bafokeng stadium should take a maximum 90 minutes and on a good day it’s a pleasant journey through the Highveld Plateau with its low mountains and grasslands.
Unfortunately, when anything goes wrong, it’s a nightmare. Given the fact that there is only one road in and one out, and no motorway to speak of, anyone returning after a night game had to put up with one lane of traffic snaking its way back to Pretoria, and Johannesburg beyond.
So bad was the congestion after the city’s final game that police directed traffic towards a dimly-lit circuitous country route in order to ease the traffic. No way, said my fellow scribe who was driving. The last time he did that, earlier in the tournament, he returned home after dawn having suffered a flat tire by careering into one of the many deep potholes that lined the route like road mines. So much for the organisers’ assurances that transport infrastructure had been brought up to date. They obviously forgot about Rustenberg.
The only option if you don’t have a car park pass at the two Johannesburg stadiums is to take a media shuttle. Perfectly reasonable except that it isn’t always easy to deposit one’s vehicle beforehand. Bribing – sorry, asking nicely – various hotel officials to use their car park for the day is the best option. The other is to pretend you are more important than you are.
The other day some colleagues and I turned up at a downtown Sandton hotel to find a bevy of public relations ladies handing out passes for an invite-only function. Naturally we took one of them, parked for free and took the lift up to ground floor. As we exited, a sponsors’ breakfast was in full swing, together with speeches from the floor.
The unexpected entrance of three unshaved reporters carrying laptop bags and wearing tatty jeans raised more than a few eyebrows from the immaculately dressed guests. To say we couldn’t get out quick enough is an understatement.
June 27, 2010
The performing dogs in action.
The best way to describe Durban would be a stew. Not just because of the weather – 15-odd degrees warmer than most other World Cup venues – but because of its mix. It reputedly has the highest Indian population of any city outside India and they, along with the Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu peoples, make this a boisterous, brassy city. A hearty stew, then.
Nowhere was it more boisterous than on Florida Road on Friday night, hours after Brazil and Portugal had played out a drab, goalless draw at the futuristic Moses Mabhida Stadium. Cape Town can be loud – enough vuvuzelas can make any place loud – but even Long Street or Green Point lack the sheer numbers at hand on Florida Road. As Spain and Chile played out a very different sort of game, the city's most happening street was jammed end to end with cabs, cars and people.
Getting a place in a bar or at a restaurant was impossible – you made your way to the bar, grabbed your drink, came back onto the pavement and watched above a hundred heads on the big screen. Many in the crowd were Brazilians – or Brazil fans, if not the real McKoy – and so the support was squarely behind Spain.
Many of those fans had flown in to the city on matchday, wave after wave of yellow and green complementing the blue of the Durban sky and the rainbow of its people. There was singing everywhere – on the plane, too, though it didn't detract from some of the stunning views of the landscape below – and that singing continued late into the night. The weather helped; Durban was, I noted, warmer than Bangalore, where I work. The food, too, is hotter than in the Cape – the overwhelming Indian influence.
It's the same influence which perhaps also makes the city a little more chaotic – or shall we say a little less organized. One of the morning's papers carried a page on Durban trivia which included the gem about a hospital ICU where every Sunday around noon the patient in the bed would die. Convinced it was beyond human intervention, officials called in specialists, more spiritual than temporal. That Sunday, as they watched, they saw the weekly cleaner come in as usual at 11 a.m., switch off the ICU machine and plug in her vacuum cleaner.
Ah, chaos. Indians – and I am one - are genetically comfortable with chaos; it brings out the best in us and, in turn, gives us an edge in any sort of competition. How else do you think we've cornered the cricket market? And so the city coped admirably with the invasion, though some journalists had their noses put out of joint – the press box was full so the overflow had to slum it with the ordinary fans. I was one of them, sitting in a sea of Portugal and Brazil jerseys, many worn by African and Asian faces. It's all in the cause of the beautiful game.
In tribute to the influx, Saturday morning's Independent carried a four-page special entirely in Portuguese; the headline "More than beautiful" was a bit of an overstatement – unless it was referring to the fans - but it's an increasingly hard world for newspapers so cut them some slack. Through the day those fans added to the Durban stew, their Latin lilt adding to the existing babble of voices, which increased later in the evening when a few Dutch fans trooped in ahead of their team's game on Monday.
The destination of choice was the marine theme park adjoining the beach; under a brilliantly blue sky there was simply no contest. Theme parks aren't usually top of my to-do list but this was clean, it had lots of things to see and do and, most importantly in Durban, it was safe. Families, couples, singles, one man and his two performing dogs, everyone let their guard down just a bit, shelved for the moment the warnings about how to carry your wallets and bags and whom not to talk to. The two performing dogs, whose accessory was a football, probably got more applause at the end of their turn than the Brazil and Portugal teams when they walked off the previous night. As bubbles go, it could have been worse.
And here's the problem – Durban isn't a walking city in the manner that Cape Town has been and even large parts of Port Elizabeth. The standard warning about South Africa goes up manifold when it comes to Durban (though Jo'burg holds the record) and since I usually move on my own it does cause certain operational issues. Seeing a city from the inside of a taxi is not an ideal solution but I've seen the warning signs – sidewalks largely devoid of people – so I will have to devise a Plan B. Watch this space.
June 25, 2010
Volunteers keep the tournament ticking over© Getty Images
It takes many things to make a World Cup but the important one, for me, is the human element - the men and women, volunteers, paid professionals and ordinary citizens with whom the vast army of fans and journalists have their contact. Every other element - communications, transport, etc - will be fine to certain degrees of variance, and can be tolerated. But it’s the human touch that raises such a tournament from the merely enjoyable to the truly memorable. Before you think I’ve gone soft in the head I’ll explain - stay with me, it’s worth the wait.
When England drew against Algeria last Friday it turned their final group match, against Slovenia in Port Elizabeth, into a proverbial do-or-die encounter. Within minutes - literally - all flights to PE from all airports were sold out; all hotel rooms had been booked out weeks previously. For a couple of days I tried every number to get me from Cape Town to PE, with no luck; even the martinets in the office showed rare sympathy and advised me against going.
Of course, I went. And the fact that I got there (and back) and didn’t have to spend the night on the road, was down to three angels. The first was Dan, a British reporter who put up a sign at the media centre on Monday night saying he was driving down to PE and had room in his car. A phone call later he had agreed to take me and gave me the number of his B&B in Plettenberg Bay, about three hours outside PE, where he was breaking journey. Another phone call and the lovely ladies at 113 Robberg had guaranteed me a room - no question of a deposit or card number.
So I had a passage to PE and back (once again, in Dan’s car). Now all I needed was a room in PE. There was nothing to be done but get there and try my luck. Andrea and Enya at the Plettenberg B&B said I could come back there after the game, whatever the time, but I knew the offer, though kind, was unviable. The match came and went in a blur with half my mind still on post-game arrangements. The backup was a place in Dan’s room but he already had another reporter sharing with him.
Then I saw Rosemarie, one of the volunteers keeping the wheels of this tournament moving. She just looked kindly and compassionate and willing to go the extra bit. After a bit of a ticking-off - “How can you come to PE without a room?” - she got down to work. For the next hour I watched as she dialed the number of every travel agent, B&B, hotel , taxi service - essentially every contact she had - for a room. She forced a friend to call her Indian friend to see whether there was any room available. Eventually she waved me away - “Go and do your work, leave this to me” - because, I suspected, my hang-dog expression was just getting her down.
An hour later she came to my seat and said, “I’ve got a room for you. It’s a bed and an attached bath and it’s in someone’s house and you won’t have to pay.”
Enter Harry and Erika. They’d been phoned by a friend, who’d been phoned by a friend, asking whether the spare room in their house was free. It was. I had no idea who Harry was, or how old, or why he’d agreed to take in a complete stranger. I called him, explained I might be late, could I grab a bite to eat and come?
“Come on over, I’ll make you something,” he said. So I went, and it was one of the most pleasurable dinners I had - homemade chicken curry and salad, and lots of interesting conversation. The next morning Harry dropped me off to Dan’s hotel where began an epic nine-hour journey back.
The point of this story (there is one, if you were wondering) is this: Give South Africa a chance. There are many things that can go wrong, and possibly will, but there is a soul in this country that is as pure as its gold.
I don’t know what the odds were on me finding that room but I do know that at the end of that journey, in which we covered 1,560km in two days of driving, I had seen the Garden Route, had breakfast by the ocean in Plettenberg, got invaluable tips on travel in Botswana from Harry, a volunteer warden, and had my faith in humanity reinforced. Dan’s offer was a case of extreme generosity; the other five did what they did because of their pride in their country. Six amazing people broke down the six degrees of separation.
June 23, 2010
France fans have had little to cheer
© Getty Images
The departure lounges of South Africa are beginning to fill up again. Sixteen teams and their fans will be saying goodbye by Friday evening.
Thursday saw the first four take their leave. The Greeks perhaps played as if they wanted to go home, though the country that awaits them remains in a state of considerable disorder.
For the French, the journey home is probably the first part of a hugely lengthy process of post-mortem. Raymond Domenech, who further proved why he is an unloved man with his fatuous refusal to shake the hand of Carlos Alberto Parreira after what was tantamount to a dead rubber, would perhaps be best advised to head for obscurity. His successor, anointed before this tournament and thus pointing to a poor campaign, is Laurent Blanc. He may require UN Peace envoys to bring back together fractured France.
Perhaps most sympathy must go to the Nigerians. And to single anyone out, Yakubu. That second-half miss against the Koreans is headed for a Christmas footballing comedy DVD near you. He may yet get a pizza advert from it. But, from the evidence of what I watched on Supersport TV on Tuesday night, there seemed little sympathy for him and his colleagues. And that's despite him having the nerve to later take a penalty.
A lady reporter had been assigned the task of talking to Nigerian fans in a fan park in Lagos before, during and after the match. There was much hilarity when the fans' reaction to that miss was shown, but sympathy went out to the unfortunate journalist when she was asked to gauge reaction post-match. She was soon barked at by some very angry people indeed. Not a reporting job I'd be relishing at all.
South Africa, of course, will not be returning home but shall play no further part in this tournament. Before their match with the French in Bloemfontein, I was rather taken by the wave of optimism that they were still riding on. The roads were still full of cars showing off their flags - mine included - and, as kick-off approached, horns were beeping in anticipation. Indeed, at one point it seemed as if Bafana Bafana might just pull through, but eventually they could not pull off the miracle. They depart their tournament in credit, the people clearly still behind them.
My sample size of this groundswell of positive reaction is small but telling enough, I think. A lone vuvuzela could be heard playing outside my digs and well into the night, too. And the schoolchildren next door made their 7am arrival to a chorus of horns. For South Africans, it is now time to maintain the veneer of congenial host that has been so in evidence so far.
I write a matter of hours before the fate of my own nation is decided. Not that I am decided on what I want to happen to England, such has been the bitter taste left so far by this campaign. If only that performance against Algeria was the worst thing about it. This week's machinations have only served to alienate and appal.
All this talk of departure can lead one to think of their own home. I am two weeks in, with three still to go. Still enjoying it, too. Such thoughts of home-front longing have been allayed somewhat by some welcome communications with friends and family. The world is a smaller place these days, thanks to phones, email and social networking.
Nevertheless, one tinge of sadness has reached me out here. News of the passing of Soccernet favourite Frank Sidebottom through cancer was communicated to me on Monday evening ahead of Spain v Honduras. How best to explain the majesty of the departed in this truncated form and to a confused worldwide audience? Well, Sidebottom was the papier-mache-headed alter ego of musician/comedian Chris Sievey and is responsible for such classics as ‘Guess Who's Been On Match Of The Day’ (answer: "me in me big shorts"), for whom football songs were a big part of his Casio-keyboard-powered live act. Noting that Juan Sebastian Veron lined up for Argentina on Tuesday, I could therefore only refer to his club side as "Estudiantes, striped shirt, black panties" in tribute.
Frank's last public act was to promote his World Cup single in a Manchester pub on the opening day of this tournament. "Three Shirts On My Line" ("home, away and goalie") will have to serve as an epitaph. Buy it if indeed you can.
June 21, 2010
Fabio Capello can be grateful he’s not managing France
© Getty Images
Sunday night saw me as recipient of the sometimes fateful words "you're not from around here, are you?". However, these circumstances were not in any way threatening, seeing as they came within the theme-park confines of Brazil v Ivory Coast at Soccer City.
The enquirer was a chap to my left, sitting with young sons both decked in Brazil merchandise. When, through ease of purpose, I informed him I was from Manchester, the father excitedly told his sons this information and a discussion of that city's football clubs soon begun. But then the inevitable came, words that reflected my own feelings. "We're so disappointed in England," he said. "We watch the Premier League religiously and they just don't look like the same players."
Who was I to disagree? In fact, I stopped short of telling him of the extent of my mounting anger at the way England's selection of tabloid-leakers and whisperers had seemingly sought to derail a team that I, at least while in this country at this tournament, am to be associated with.
That said, in the light of what had been occurring in both the English and French training camps, this World Cup can now truly be declared open. Forget the football, South Africa 2010 has twin scandals to rank alongside the Roy Keane affair of 2002, the West German coup d'etat of 1974 and the various fall-outs the Dutch have had through the years. And the French have done it far better, in much more spectacular style than their English counterparts.
If you're going to implode, air it all in public rather than double-deal, scapegoat and then pull back from the precipice when agents worried about commercial deals start telling you to calm it. English politesse has been superseded by French elan. By contrast, the French players' big problem seems to be with "a traitor" who was using the press while in the English case, pet reporters have been tipped the wink to stir the pot. Only now, after John Terry's reported forced climb-down, have his colleagues seen any sense in that to continue this ruinous revolt will result in serious consequences back home. The rotten tomatoes, figurative or otherwise, await at Heathrow Airport should they fail on Wednesday.
It amused me to read that the supposed showdown lost its insurrectionary air once a video of the Algeria game was aired. All that talk is likely to have been superfluous once footballing failings are so brutally exposed.
June 20, 2010
Jong Tae-Se speaks Portuguese... apparently.
© Getty Images
It says something about resilience that, in an age when information is on tap and no corner of the world - and little of the space above and below - is left to be uncovered, North Korea remains an enigma.
They came into this tournament with only a little more known about their football than in 1966 - enough, though, for someone in FIFA to suss out that one of the keepers was actually a striker.
But it’s the sort of cover that is impossible to penetrate, even in the high-profile, full-glare world of a World Cup. When I last checked there were no North Korean journalists accredited for this game who could help shed some light on the country and its football.
And so, in the absence of any information, rumour and myth proliferate. One Italian reporter said he saw them practice, up north, in an open field with people and “birds” criss-crossing the field. A Japanese reporter said three members of the team speak English - and Jong Tae-Se, the “people’s Rooney”, speaks Portuguese too. Does he? I wouldn’t suppose we’ll get close enough to him to find out.
Their practice session was a chance to see whether they were any different to any of the other teams. Not really, though there were some signs. First, they wore a relatively obscure brand of clothing - Legea, their suppliers, also kit out the national teams of Iran, Albania and Zimbabwe.
Second, the sprinkling of reporters watching the practice was - officially at least - devoid of any from home. Most unusual, given that even Mauritius has a photographer assigned to this tournament. Third, their practice - the bit we were allowed to see - was a bit of sprinting on the sidelines and some group exercises behind the posts. Forget about any five-a-side games that might reveal tactics, there wasn’t even any of the cheerful keepy-uppy or larking about one sees at almost every practice session. It was strictly business as usual.
At the press conference that followed, the coach, Kim Jong-Hun, smiled only once (though it could have been a grimace), when asked about the four players who “disappeared”. Perhaps he had other things on his mind, things that delayed his arrival at the press conference by more than 20 minutes.
Once again, there was no question asked in Korean (this part easily verifiable) and, indeed, very little asked about the team and its formation. My question about the fans went unasked because the press conference itself was curtailed with indecent haste.
It was an unusual day that began in an unusual way. Shortly after noon, journalists were asked to evacuate the media centre - the announcement was sotto voce and almost relaxed so it was clear it wasn’t a bomb (or at least not a very dangerous one).
We were allowed back in after ten-odd minutes - time well spent soaking up the brilliant sunshine - and it later transpired that one of the guard dogs on duty had sniffed something and gone a bit mental. It’s the first such instance I’ve seen in reporting three World Cups and hopefully the last.
South African fans listen to their side.
© Getty Images
Saturday was a rare and welcome day off for me. Seven games in seven days saw me approaching something of a football fatigue. Not that this stopped me settling down to enjoy all three matches on a selection of local media. Not for me the use of free time to mount an anthropological search for the real Africa. That will have to wait in the light of my devotion to this World Cup.
One of the very best things about being granted the privilege to cover this World Cup has been my absenteeism from UK coverage of the tournament. Euro 2008 was a rare pleasure in that lazy broadcasters were unable to fill their half-time and preliminaries with puff-pieces about the England team. "Let's go off to the England camp" is a phrase to send to send shivers down the spine of the connoisseur though it also probably saves us from wrong-headed and barely informed analysis of New Zealand v Slovakia.
I have heard and read reports of the UK coverage of this tournament. Alan Hansen is reported to have commented the following on Apartheid: "That system was obviously fundamentally flawed, but now they've got the World Cup..." Thanks for that, Alan. Then I am told that Alan Shearer was seen visiting the townships of Cape Town. I shall have to seek that out on my return.
Instead, I must follow those games I cannot attend on a combination of South African TV and radio. And I like what I can see and hear. And enthusiasm is key to that. No team is dismissed and analysis of each game is detailed. Which makes a welcome change.
SABC are the official television broadcaster, with African satellite behemoth SuperSport providing 24-hour action from the tournament. Both broadcast from seemingly huge studios while pundits sit sternly behind laptops of a certain brand, which may or may not be switched on. The dress code is smart, besuited, with SABC having a uniform of charcoal suit with mauve handkerchief placed in top pocket. For the likes of Dwight Yorke and Paul Ince, such a stringent parameter is still able to be pimped up with jewellery, which must come as some relief.
With Bafana Bafana surely headed to the exit, other African teams now have the host nation's will behind them. I saw evidence of this when in a restaurant on Saturday evening. Samuel Eto'o's goal inspired mass celebrations among the waiters and there was some misery in evidence when the Danes staged their comeback win. The selection of pundits reflects this pan-African feel with Zambian legend Kalusha Bwalya, Abedi Pele, Sami Kuffour, Shaun Bartlett and Daniel Amokachi all called upon to give their views. Manchester United fans of a certain vintage will also be delighted to see former goalie Gary Bailey's that blond locks are still just about retained.
There also some familiar faces to an English audience too. John Barnes has been squeezing himself into the pundit's pew, as have former Spurs skipper Gary Mabbutt and Terry Paine, a member of England's 1966 squad and one-time all-time Football League appearance record-holder. Paine now lives out in South Africa and provides an old-school view of affairs. European colour is in evidence from Edgar Davids and Thomas Berthold, a veteran of West Germany's 1986 and 1990 finals.
While local commentators can be heard on SABC, familiar voices can be heard on Supersport. Neither company uses an expert summariser, which makes for something of a welcome rest in the light of the egos of some I could mention. On Supersport the tones of Englishmen Garry Bloom, Dave Woods, Kevin Keating and Yorkshire broadcast legend John Helm will all be known to those of us watching the less blue riband events back home. A simple formula then, but one that tells the tale of the World Cup just fine in my eyes.
Car journeys have been spent listening to official host broadcaster Radio 2000, a station that makes up for its rawness with its desire to please. Sebolelo Makoanyane bubbles with excitement when speaking ahead of games, even admitting her lack of knowledge on certain subjects to make a further refreshing change. The match commentary itself meanwhile, has charmed me with its constant splurging of facts, with each player described in the following manner of this example: "Martin Skrtel, who plays for Liverpool but signed from them from Zenit St Petersburg, heads the ball back to keeper Jan Mucha, who plays for...."
On Saturday lunchtime I went for a long head-clearing drive through Johannesburg's Northern suburbs and listened in confusion as the radio appeared to be playing the TV commentary of the Netherlands v Japan I had been viewing just before I set off. Twenty minutes or so in, the presenter cut across to tell us that the commentator had finally arrived at Durban Stadium. Thereafter, as the commentator constantly hailed the Dutch for their love of 'Total Football' and delivered long eulogies to Johan Cruyff, who I don't believe made the starting XI, he frequently made derogatory references to British Airways and their delay of his connecting flight. You don't get that on the BBC.
Anyway, off to the England camp...
June 19, 2010
So it's not just me. Friday's goalless draw in Cape Town was my third in four games I've watched live and I was wondering whether it was me putting a hex on teams that stops them from scoring. It isn't, of course - so Portugal and North Korea, whom I watch next, can rest easy.
But the games have been low-scoring, that is an undeniable fact. Some digging around shows that goals have dried up at this tournament compared to the last two. The first round of group matches (16 games) have produced 25 goals, compared to 39 in 2006 - and a whopping 46 in 2002. The next seven saw a slight improvement - 18 in 2010 against 16 four years ago and 12 in 2002.
My own record has been immeasurably poorer – the first four games I covered in the last two tournaments netted ten goals each; this year it's the two produced by Italy and Paraguay on Monday.
I’m not sure what the drought is down to but it does seem that the football has defied the predictions before the tournament. One, that the weather would bring out the best in the Europe-based players since they would be used to it. Two, the biggest stars – Messi, Rooney, Ronaldo – were all in great-to-good form through the season, as also were a number of (only slightly) lesser stars, including Drogba and Higuain, Robben and Ribery.
The weather’s been fine – cold, for sure, but not colder than some of the domestic leagues or the Champions League around the winter break. The ball, perhaps, but it cannot explain such a heavy shortfall in the number of goals. Fatigue? Messi and almost every other member of the Argentina team that beat South Korea 4-1 have had as long a season as anyone else. Tactics? It would explain the lack of goals for France and England, for example.
A deeper look at FIFA’s statistics throws up some intriguing facts. Greece have had more attacks than any other team with 37; England are second on 34, so go figure. Greece also have the most “solo runs”, along with Germany – both have 47, with Argentina on 41.
Elsewhere the statistics are more in sync with perception – Argentina have the most shots at goal and the most on target.
They also lead the most important column – goals scored. It’s the drought suffered by their rivals that’s a bit worrying.
If the Slovenians are feeling aggrieved after a squandering a two-goal advantage to draw with USA on Friday, they’re not showing it. Many of the team were seen casually walking around the Hyde Park Shopping Centre in Johannesburg on Saturday where they are based, and were all smiles with each other.
Unlike some of the flashier teams like England who can just about roll out of bed onto a private training ground, Slovenia are not staying at a luxury resort. They are in a Southern Sun hotel attached to a fairly regular mall, where many northern Johannesburg residents conduct their shopping.
Members of the team walked around the centre in their green and white tracksuits and were not bothered a by a single member of the public for an autograph or a quick chat. The players appeared to be enjoying their freedom, unperturbed by the fact that many people in the mall had no idea who they were. Some shoppers only figured out that they were in the company of World Cup participants when they asked if they knew who the tracksuited fold were.
Three of the team members went into a mobile phone shop, where they spent some time looking at the models on offer. Speaking of models, a slim, red-haired girl was the only female spotted with a group of Slovenian players, although she didn’t appear attached to any of them.
England fans after the Algeria game
That heady summer football of Mexico '86 is the first World Cup I can properly remember and one of my strongest TV memories of that tournament is the public torture carried out by ITV on one of their pundits.
Former Scotland and Liverpool forward Ian St. John, for it was he, was suffering through his country's execrable 0-0 draw with Uruguay while, unbeknownst to him, a hidden camera was following his every last groan, gripe and gesture. How "Greavsie" and the crew giggled when "Saint" was played back his impromptu performance.
On Friday, in the chilly Ellis Park pressroom after USA's pulsating draw with Slovenia, a fellow journalist attempted - in vain - to do the same to me during the god-awful horror show that was England 0-0 Algeria. He was given short shrift and treated to the same Anglo-Saxon vernacular I had previously been aiming at a flat-screen television. My solace lay in the fact I was not in Cape Town and among a group of people - the fans - who were entitled to be even angrier, having paid serious cash to be insulted by such a clueless showing.
I myself found my own reactions odd. My friends and colleagues will know that I am never one to proclaim patriotism and the very ideas of wearing an England shirt or showing off a Flag of St George are distant anathema. Yet being at a World Cup can do strange things to the self-aware student of the game. My last such reaction to an England game came in a Munich bar. While at Germany 2006 I sat through a dire victory over Trinidad & Tobago in the company of Brazilians and Australians preparing for a group match between the two nations. It was the same feeling: shame by association with a brand of football so poor that it made you wish you were Scottish.
Yet it seems that the players only wish to share that association when it suits them. Wayne Rooney's outburst to a television camera was undefendable. What did he and his team-mates expect? Warm applause, massed stiff upper lips, a chorus of "Things Can Only Get Better"? A colleague at the game said that the players did not even seek to acknowledge the fans. I myself viewed a similar lack of mutual appreciation for travelling support after the game in Rustenberg, where the Americans righteously applauded their support and our own collection of Premier League megastars merely sloped off in search of their Marks and Spencer suits and oversized headphones.
It was hard not to have some sympathy for the miscreant who wormed his way into the dressing room and was there long enough to have a go at David Beckham. In doing so, he was perhaps seeking to gain the personal touch these cosseted clots clearly feel is beneath them. Now, in a transparent attempt at spinning the agenda away from the main story, the English FA's po-facedly talk of security worries and the players' safety.
They can barely expect a wave of public sympathy though from my own experience such a security breach is highly possible. While trying to escape the rugby scrum of the "Mixed Zone" after the tournament's opening match, I mistakenly found myself in the Mexican dressing room, quickly taking my leave when I caught sight of a discarded green jockstrap.
I digress. That problem is surely to be righted in a far easier fashion than the travails of the England team. I shall leave the most telling words to the captain himself, Steven Gerrard MBE. In seeking to paint a positive light and be magnanimous to his Algerian opponents, he supplied this wonderful piece of reality-detached arrogance: "We have to give them credit. This was their World Cup final."
No, Steven, it wasn't. But you may just have pinpointed why your team was so poor and are now so unloved.
June 18, 2010
The English fans out in force.
© Getty Images
You know the English are in town when there’s a buzz on the streets - and a faint smell of lager in the air. The fans travel in their thousands but, unlike the 70s and 80s, there’s an air of eager anticipation in the cities awaiting them.
This stems from two factors - their propensity to travel en masse and to drink, shall we say, with gusto. And to generally belie the reputation that even today precedes them. I guess the stricter controls on ticketing and travelling and the problems with the economy have helped, though there’s always a Robbie Earle to test those limits.
Friday in Cape Town - the sun is shining, the weather is sweet and the city is full to overflowing with the Hordes of St George. The red and white is everywhere; the Waterfront is submerged under the flags and the fans but is being emptied at roughly the same rate of gallons and gallons of beer. The “beer tent” reverberates to cries of “Ingerland, Ingerland” (this is five hours before kickoff but a little practice never hurt) and to the cheers when Serbia score against Germany. It hasn’t struck anyone that if Germany eventually lose and come second in the group they could be England’s opponents in the second round.
The Waterfront is as crowded, as buzzy and cheerful as I have seen it in my ten days here. Most are part of the red-and-white mass but there are a few exceptions. Some are Algerian fans, clearly outnumbered but enjoying the mild weather and perhaps saving their voices for the game. It’s possible they have something planned that we don’t know about. And then there’s the Scotsman in full regalia: kilt, sporran and (he claims) nothing underneath. He alternates between shouting “Scotland” and “Ingerland”; someone asks why he’s backing both. He could have taken refuge in the beer and the afternoon sun but shouts back: “I’m a confused Jock.”
And everywhere there are masses of police. South Africa has several different security arms - police, metro police, traffic services, disaster management - and they are all out in good number. They handle things with good humour, even when one fan stands in the middle of the road and asks his friend to take a picture of him directing traffic. There is, though, through it all a fear things could become rowdy once the beer runs its natural course and, consequently, the fervent hope that the police don’t misread the rowdiness for hooliganism. The Alsatians are on standby just in case.
My first encounter with England fans was in Japan in 2002; after years of “indoctrination” by sources as varied as The Football Factory and The Daily Telegraph, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they kept largely to themselves and kept out of trouble, even when they weren’t keeping sober. I still recall seeing this giant of a man effortlessly carrying two cases (that’s 48 bottles) one entire block from the off-licence to what I guessed was his hotel room.
Yet things never got out of control - perhaps the fans were still jetlagged, perhaps they were too dazed by the over-polite, non-aggressive behavior of their Japanese hosts whose usual response to any question was a quick shake of the head, a stiff bow and a completely blank expression that said, “Mate, I don’t understand you and even if I did it’s really none of my business.” Brilliant tactics, you just could not pick a fight with them.
Things were as peaceful in Germany, where the fans were probably aware that behind the smiles of the German police lay more than a hint of steel. The weather was nice - warm without Japan’s humidity - and the beer was almost like home.
It probably helped that at both the tournaments England’s fans had little to be aggressive about, though I recall, in Sapporo before England v Argentina, the locals apprehending a bit of, let’s call it argey-bargey. Beckham’s penalty made for a positive story and Pierluigi Collina’s refereeing was generally spot on, so no one had any complaints.
And so to Cape Town 2010, where there’s more at stake, not least Don Fabio’s reputation. Before the fans descended, I asked one bar owner what he expected. “Well, I don’t know, you see, we’ve only dealt with cricket fans so far. And when they come to Cape Town they enjoy the beer and lose the match. So they sing a lot but they have nothing to shout about. We are all happy with that.”
What fate does football hold? We’ll know in a few hours.
June 17, 2010
A majority of games have failed to sell out.
© Getty Images
Guess what the latest excuse is over the swathes of empty seats that continue to plague each and every World Cup venue? The stadiums are just too large.
FIFA happy over seat issues
That was the reason given today by organising committee CEO Danny Jordaan as debate intensifies into just how FIFA got their figures so drastically wrong.
Throughout the build-up to the tournament, football’s world governing body insisted that 97% of tickets had been sold. But after finally acknowledging the situation might actually be somewhat different, FIFA attributed the no-shows to disaffected European fans and, locally, a breakdown of transport arrangements for corporate clients who bought en bloc. While the latter is entirely plausible though not justifiable, are FIFA really suggesting that overseas fans shelled out for tickets and then decided ‘to hell with it, I’ll stay at home after all.’?
Jordaan, who has never tried to hide the truth about anything, believes the tournament will eventually come close to the attendance records set in the United States in 1994. “That is simply because of the capacity of the stadiums - we have big stadiums in this country,” he said.
Maybe so but that doesn’t go nearly far enough. With the exception perhaps of Soccer City, not one stadium has come anywhere near FIFA’s projected 97%. More than 10,000 empty seats were visible at the match between Cameroon and Japan in Bloemfontein. Apparently, the no-shows from overseas accounted for -- wait for it - just 1,000 of them.
It was 10,000 again when Greece played South Korea and even worse in Rustenberg on Tuesday when New Zealand met Slovakia. There, the attendance of 23,871 was scandalously below the official capacity of 38,646 at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium.
FIFA insists that because tickets are sold but not taken up, there is not much they can do in terms of filling empty seats except to improve transport facilities. But the fact is only four of the first 11 games were sold out, a sad indictment, say critics, of FIFA's pricing strategy.
The cheapest category four seats are still way out of reach of the majority of the black community, among whom football is most popular with cricket and rugby the priority of the white minority.
How frustrating, however, it must be for grass-roots supporters to be unable to get in to supposedly sold-out games, only to see banks of empty seats on television. FIFA had promised that their four-tier system would be affordable to ordinary South African football fans and priced attractively enough to lure those from the rest of the continent. The South African government even said it would bus in schoolchildren rather than see empty seats.
How frustating too for overseas fans who arrived on spec hoping to buy tickets. Tania Gomes of Portugal is planning to go to the Brazil game on June 25 even though she and her cousin only have one ticket between them. The black market may be forbidden but you can understand her irritation. "I will be very angry if I can't get in and then there are more empty seats – it's a mess,” she said.
The fact is FIFA’s numbers just don’t add up. Blaming the global downturn simply isn’t good enough. Nor is the realisation that less than half the originally projected 750,000 tourists are actually turning up.
The fact is too that organisers have blundered big-time by not selling tickets over the counter to grass-roots fans rather than relying on the elitist minority, with little or no footballing pedigree, to take up the slack.
June 16, 2010
Supporters at a Fan Fest
On a grey, windy morning the only splashes of colour were from the different national flags, the green of the turf and the sponsors' marquees. A few kids played football, determined not to allow the weather to dictate terms. The World Cup was everywhere – on the giant screen, showing the documentary on the 1970 tournament; in the bunting and billboards; in the vuvuzelas that were never too far away, parping out every so often. This, on Wednesday, was St Georges Park, the oldest surviving cricket club in South Africa and one of cricket's most venerable venues, now converted into a Fan Fest zone where the public gathers to watch the matches for free.
The only signs of its hoary past lay in the scoreboard that peeked out from behind the stage and - cricket lovers will be relieved to learn - in the square that was cordoned off from the trampling boots of football fans. "Ya, we're going to be extra careful about that, no doubt," said the police officer reassuringly when I voiced my concern as a member of the cricket community.
I'd chosen to spend the day at St George’s partly in deference to the sport that provides me my bread and butter and partly out of curiosity – what would a Fan Fest zone be like on a cold, blustery, rainy day? Would the festivity break through the temperatures?
As it happened, it did – through sheer willpower, if not through any of the myriad marketing exercises. There weren't too many people around – at its peak there must have been around 300 fans watching the game and an equal number of security men, volunteers and sponsors' employees. But there were families, couples, serious, single-minded football fans (you had to be a serious, single-minded fan to be there in the first place) and the odd tourist who strolled in. It wasn't the party that I'd seen in Cape Town over the weekend but there was a buzz and hey, you have to make some concessions for the weather.
What was as pleasant an experience was a half-time stroll round the stadium's inner corridors untroubled by stewards, crowds or really anyone at all. The walls tell the history of South African cricket through newspaper front-pages – the D'Oliviera tour, the 1971 World Series in Australia, the first efforts to integrate the sport. Buried on one on those front pages was a bit of cricket trivia, if ephemeral: the engagement of de Beers heir Nicky Oppenheimer – against whose invitational XI all touring cricket teams play a ritual match - to Orcillia Lasch in 1968.
There was good news on the food front too – lots more variety, at far cheaper prices than anything the FIFA media centres or the stadiums have offered. Apart from the usual "halal huts" and soft-drink vendors was one stall that seemed to be family-run, offering hot soup – gold-dust on a day like this – and other warming snacks. It's where I had my first bunny chow – curry stuffed inside half a loaf of bread – and I was able to knock off another on the personal to-do list. Verdict: the curry needs more spice!
There was another reason I was glad I'd come to St George's – it was the only place today where I saw more than five people at the same time. Port Elizabeth is a two-horse town and it seemed both horses had taken the day off. To be fair it was a national holiday – Youth Day, commemorating the day students in Soweto began their protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. Even so, it was disconcerting driving up to the ground and seeing everything locked and barred and the roads deserted; walking down towards the city centre was equally disconcerting, to the point when, on my way there, the lady at the tourist information booth told me not to go because everything was shut.
Instead I soaked in the bits of sunshine that struggled to make it out of the thick grey and left the PE sights for another day. I might regret it; then again, I might not.
The band in Bafana Bafana jerseys.
Vuvuzelas are not the only instruments making a musical mark at this World Cup. A marimba band played melodious tunes at The Zone mall in Rosebank, Johannesburg as part of the joint celebrations for Youth Day and the day Bafana Bafana take to the field for their second match in this World Cup.
A marimba, for those who are unsure, is an instrument made of wood, with keys or bars similar to a piano that is played with two, yarn-wrapped mallets.
The Soweto Marimba Youth League (SMYLE) band played in the piazza of the mall, an area surrounded by restaurants and pedestrian traffic and they had a healthy audience to cheer them on. A group of touring Mexicans, Argentineans and Europeans as well as many locals crowded around the band to hear their beautiful brand of percussion, brass and occasional singing.
The music became more familiar as renditions of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and the much-covered You Raise Me Up played but the crowd really joined in when the World Cup songs started.
The band started with K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag during which they took off their multi-coloured shirts to reveal green and gold Bafana jerseys. That was followed by a gorgeously clinky version of Waka Waka, Shaikra and Freshly Ground’s official World Cup anthem.
The band was formed from a group of underprivileged children from the area of Dobsonville in Soweto. The idea was to create a music program for learners from the schools in the area who did not have access to musical instruments. It is still without a music teacher but it does have the inspirational Johnny Hlaba at the helm. Hlaba is a gardener from one of the local primary schools and has a unique way of Africanising popular songs. He acts as a guide and teaches the pupils how to play their instruments.
The band has got a lot of exposure through the World Cup. They also performed at Jeppe Girls, a school east of Johannesburg, for their mock world cup tournament on May 1 – also a public holiday.
Political feelings were never far from the surface
© Getty Images
As you may have read on Tuesday, I was rather taken by the performance of North Korea in frustrating Brazil for long periods at Ellis Park. Due to the oversubscription that always follows any match involving Brazil at a major tournament, I found myself relegated to the subs' bench of the media tribune, among a group of photographers and some other disgruntled journalists.
Perhaps partly mindful of the fact that Brazilian progress may harm our chances of being able to attend the latter stages, I found myself as part of an impromptu coterie of enthusiastic supporters of the Democratic People's Republic. One of the photographers, an English veteran of many a sports event - his last visit to Ellis Park had been the Rugby World Cup Final in 1995 - echoed my own thoughts when saying, "Good little side, aren't they?". My new friend had used the type of cooing vernacular one would use for the FA Cup visit of a lower division to a Premier League giant. As Brazilian efforts waned against the brickwall defence of the Koreans we began to openly wonder if we were to witness history.
There was to be no fairytale, just the handing of immense credit to the mystery men. And for the Brazilians, a rare night when they were not the centre of attention and were even the bad guys in the eyes of many.
Yet to suggest the North Koreans were the 'goodies' is to enter a moral maze. Does one support them because we love a plucky underdog, to coin a patronising cliche? Or do we consider what they represent? The pre-match conference by coach Kim Jong-Hun should have provided a note of considerable caution in its obstinate deflection of any question deemed to be political. So too this answer: "If they win the game, they will bring great happiness to our great leader."
Among the little that is known about life in the country known as "Chosun" to its people is that the vast majority of the population are starving and oppressed under the aegis of a leader in Kim Jong-Il whose best-known policy is the constant threat of nuclear attack on "Nam Chosun" - or South Korea to you and me. Those Koreans playing in Johannesburg on Tuesday did not reveal symptoms of malnutrition or disquiet with their lot - witness the pre-match swell of emotion by star man Jong Tae-Se - and would seem highly likely to be receiving special treatment. After all, a good performance on the international stage can only serve as great propaganda for their despotic leader.
So, in narrow defeat, a political coup has already been landed, and that rather takes away from the satisfaction of seeing probably the best match of the tournament so far. While many would be happy to suggest that politics have no part in football, Kim Jong-Il himself seemed hell-bent on making it so by cutting off the TV signal unless his team won.
That is not to paint Brazil as the white knights either. The seleção are one of the most rapacious money-making machines in football, their association with a certain sportswear manufacturer long casting questions about their practices. See also their football association's hawking of their team's wares to the highest bidder with that recent friendly in Zimbabwe serving as hugely unwelcome publicity for none other than Robert Mugabe.
The easy way, as so often plumped for in other spheres of life, is to concentrate on the football itself. Yet to do so would be to allow the agendas of others less interested in, to coin a FIFA phrase, "the good of the game" to use the greatest stage to further their own questionable ends. A World Cup simply cannot operate outside due deference to the acceptable parameters of the rest of human life.
June 15, 2010
Will the cold be too much for Kaka & Co?
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Thousands of Brazilian fans arrived in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning ahead of their team’s World Cup opener against North Korea. They wouldn’t be blamed had they turned around and boarded the plane straight back to the beaches of Rio after what greeted them. It’s the coldest day of the year so far in the city, with a maximum temperature of just nine degrees Celsuis and a wind that lashes past more fiercely than a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick.
Those who are actually out and about in Johannesburg will tell you that if the mercury actually reaches nine degrees, we might get some respite. Morning temperatures hovered around five degrees, peaked at just over seven and are now back on their way down. The forecast is that the temperature will drop to -4 by game time, with the expected “comfort level” to reach -10 degrees. I don’t know what that means exactly, except that it will be freezing.
Those in parts of Europe and America may think this is normal winter weather, and while it may be so for them, temperatures this cold are unusual and rare in Johannesburg. Even worse news for the Brazilian fans is that Ellis Park is a more exposed stadium than most. Unlike Soccer City, where the calabash structure provides coverage not just for people in the top tiers, but for most at the bottom, Ellis Park seats only cover the top, and that too is not for everyone seated there. The sides are also exposed so even those who have overhead coverage may have the chill creeping up on them from the sides.
The pundits are predicting the weather may favour North Korea, where temperatures can slump to as low as -13 in winter, but it’s not the footballers they should be worried about. At least the men playing ball have to pitch up, while fans may be tempted to stay at home or in their hotel rooms, rather than brave the elements outside. The cold front is expected to last until Friday, but start lifting for the weekend’s fixtures.
June 14, 2010
The noise of 60,000 is too much to bear.
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I have a confession to make: I am a South African and I want vuvuzelas banned at World Cup matches. I know, foreigners will call me sensibly westernised just like them and locals will want me tried for treason but I don't care. I've had my eardrums reach bursting point three times in as many weeks, and I've had enough.
First, there were over 50,000 vuvuzelas at the Bafana Bafana friendly against Colombia at Soccer City, then a few thousand more tormented me at the Portugal/Mozambique match and on Sunday more were blown at and around me at my first World Cup match - Ghana v Serbia.
I am not one of those South Africans (and there are plenty) who had never attended a football match before and now realise they can't handle the noise. I've heard plenty a vuvuzela in my football-watching life and the sound is not foreign to me at all. I respect the traditions and culture of my football loving countrymen in its entirety and now I ask that they respect me.
It's a vain hope, I know, because I don't often get much acknowledgement from fellow South African football fans, because of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) team I support. You see, I am a loyal fan of BIDvest Wits, and I will not take offence if you've never heard of them. They are not the Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates of our league, and this season they finished in 10th place. However, Wits achieved their only claim to fame in all the years I've supported them this season as they won the Nedbank Cup (the local version of the FA Cup).
My love affair with this mid table mediocrity of a team began when I was a student reporter on the university paper. I was the chief sports writer of my year and covered Wits football intricately. I went to almost all of their matches, which were played at the University ground (where the Netherlands have been training) that has a capacity of 5,000. No more than 2,000 people pitched for most, and only about every tenth person carried a vuvuzela.
Do the maths, and you'll know that very rarely did the stadium have more than 200 vuvuzelas. Our noisiest matches were against Kaizer Chiefs, when one of their fans brought his air raid signal with him. He would sit on the grass area, in between the grandstand and the open stand and wind up that signal for takeoff every few minutes. Moving away from his and his noise machine was pretty simple and I spared myself a headache almost every time.
Most PSL supporters will have similar tales to tell. Attendance at these matches is hardly ever in excess of 10,000 and averages at around half of that. Obviously, the big matches between Soweto rivals Chiefs and Orlando Pirates attract far bigger crowds, with far more noise but that is an exception. Bloem Celtic, the team based in the Free State, also usually have larger crowds, but their fans are known for their synchronised singing, dancing and clapping routine., which is far less noisy and more pleasant than vuvuzela blowing.
Where I think the organisers have gone wrong is that they assumed the noise at the World Cup would be the same as at local matches. What they didn't realise is that tens of thousands of more people would be going to the World Cup with tens of thousands more vuvuzelas (why the Confederations Cup didn't indicate this, I'll never know) and the noise would become unbearable. The blowing would also become even more out of context than before, resulting in just plain irritation for a lot of people.
The vuvuzela has come under attack for being a bit of a dunce - blurting into the match at any stage irrespective of what is happening on the field - and this World Cup is only reinforcing that. In PSL matches, it is used more towards the end of a game when fans are trying to blow their opposition away, particularly if their team is losing. Of course, a lot of the people going to the World Cup have never been to a PSL match and don't know this.
I haven't heard anybody argue that this tradition should be respected, but the head honchos at FIFA claim to all about understanding and upholding culture. Sounds like a pretty superficial understanding to me. David Lloyd, better known as Bumble, a cricket commentator, asked on his twitter account that if vuvuzelas were so traditional, where were they when Nelson Mandela was released? Whether the precursor to the vuvuzela, the kudo horn, was around then, I can't be certain of, but Bumble makes a good point.
The vuvuzela is not, as FIFA would have you believe, the only traditional thing about football here. They have not, as it has been widely reported, been blown for as long as football has been played in this country. They are simply a cute, marketing tool that has been blown way out of proportion.
I am perfectly fine with having 200 of them at a PSL match but having 60,000 of them in a packed Soccer City is a little too much for my ear drums and I have left all three matches I've attended with a headache and a foul mood. All I hope is that the promotions people don't decide the air raid signal is also an African tradition - one of those per stadium was already more than enough.
Fans had a trouble free travel experience.
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Loftus functioned better than a well-oiled machine during Sunday’s game between Serbia and Ghana, particularly when it came to transport. There were 8,000 people short of a capacity crowd of 46,000 (a situation that will certainly be rectified for the stadium’s next match), between South Africa and Uruguay on Wednesday, but all the signs are there that even when those extra people arrive, the systems will function efficiently.
For one, the highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, was uncharacteristically quiet. Being a Johannesburg resident myself, and having travelled this road many times, this was a dream come true. It helped that the match was on a Sunday and the work-related travellers were all staying at home, but even so, the free-flow was surprising, particularly because the fan fest at SuperSport Park is Centurion is also on this route.
The city of Tshwane can really be proud of their park and ride facility. An endless line of white, mini-bus taxis transported fans to Loftus and no one had to wait at all. Volunteers explained that people using the facility based at the university sports ground should look out for buses with a purple sticker on their way back and every, single volunteer I passed told me to enjoy the game - a stark contrast to the volunteers I have thus far encountered.
The buses were loaded and drove, without obstruction, to the stadium in under three minutes. My driver had the sound system pumping some truly African beats. He was clearly chuffed with his choice in music and he took the time to ask everyone in the vehicle what they thought of his choice.
Getting out of the stadium was similarly simple. There was a queue, but it moved at pace and I didn’t wait longer than 20 minutes. The volunteers worked out a snappy system of loading people onto the buses and sending us off. I had a different driver on the way back and he got lost, taking on a detour through some of Pretoria’s funkier districts. We passed the popular Hatfield Square, a largely student hangout, with lots of restaurants, and although everyone in my bus was South African, this would have been a treat for a foreign visitor to see.
The driver had the good sense to stop, ask a police officer where he should go and then inform all the other buses that were following. We reached our cars within seven minutes of boarding the bus (detour and all) and found the route back onto the Johannesburg-bound highway was also clear.
The best part of the experience was that the park and ride for Loftus was free, while the facilities around Johannesburg charge the equivalent of US $7. That may not seem like a lot but bear in mind that category four tickets for South African residents only cost US $20. That means parking costs 35% of the ticket price for the two Johannesburg venues. Take note, City of Gold, Pretoria is way ahead of you on this one.
Rob Green's error opened the floodgates.
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Being a continent away from my given country allows me to cast a detached, amused and bemused eye on the domestic coverage of my national team.
Saturday saw me as part of a long, long wait for England's game with USA in Rustenberg, where those repeated warnings about traffic problems led to the Royal Bafokeng stadium's media centre filling up very early with the great, the good and the not-so good of Her Majesty's Press Corps.
Prior to the game, one well-known Fleet Street hack bemoaned the distances involved in following the World Cup in South Africa, before checking himself to pass on his further condolences to the fans who had paid their own money to be here. For the veterans for whom this is a job, belly-aching, sighing and talking of home is highly common practice. Those of us still wide-eyed enough to feel happy to be here are accepted yet also eyed with looks of some little pity.
That Robert Green gave the ladies and gentleman of the press an angle to lead on is without doubt. Lord knows, I led on the very same but, considering a pretty subdued post-match huddle, I still found myself taken aback by the extremes of reaction to the Green affair.
The resultant hysteria should come as little surprise yet I saw little sign of the malevolence aimed towards the stricken goalkeeper when viewing the folded arms of the journalists at Fabio Capello's press conference. Having spent many hours in their company it has been instructive to gauge written reactions after a quietish immediate aftermath. Perhaps they all repaired to a licenced premises and fired up the invective with a session on the local firewater.
It's rarely a good place to start but The Sun was a first online port-of-call this morning. Shock and indeed horror, their website's lead story tells of how "last night it emerged he (Green) also let his gorgeous girlfriend slip through his fingers just weeks before the South Africa tournament began". I had almost - almost - forgotten about that type of stuff. More fool me. The Daily Mirror follows with the same story.
On to football matters and Steven Howard's exhortation that "the Madhouse Beckons" for Fabio Capello. Howard blares: "And it's even got to Don Fabio, capo di tutti capi, boss of bosses and Godfather of the Italian coaching brotherhood. Or, if he's not careful, Tutti Fruiti."
Over at the Daily Star and Danny "The Boy" Fullbrook: "After just one game in the World Cup, he has gone from Fab to Drab, with a catalogue of mind-boggling mistakes." Nothing like gaining perspective on a 1-1 draw with your main group rivals. Open season has been declared for the first time on the England boss. You get the feeling that some of this has been in the tank for a while.
As I couldn't put it better myself, I shall leave the final comment to my colleague and friend, Mr Rob Smyth: "You know that feeling when you wake up and realise you're betrothed to a complete psychopath? No, me either, but Fabio Capello does now."
June 13, 2010
The LP in full view.
© Getty Images
The World Cup isn’t all about football, you know - it’s about putting your country on show, letting the best hang out. In South Africa, they bring out the art and artifacts. There is a lot of it, the country has such a rich history of different cultures (and that’s before we touch on the rest of Africa), so every touristy place has been converted into an impromptu open-air country fair selling all the traditional stuff.
You know the like: the beaded craftwork, the wooden masks, the rugs, fly whisks, head-dresses and stone pendants, all sufficiently marked up in keeping with the current inflationary trend here.
What caught the eye, though, during a Sunday-morning stroll down the Beach Road in Cape Town was the “LP bag”. It’s exactly what the label promises - a bag made from two LPs (that’s long-playing records, for those sad millions who’ve never been intimate with vinyl) and, as I was assured, the “finest leather”.
The stall-owner, Adam, said they were from his personal collection, and they revealed an eclectic taste in music - there was a bit of soul, some jazz, Brahms and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Raise! (before EWF fans go ballistic, the album went platinum so there are probably many more copies around). But why? “Because you can’t get those styluses,” he said. “And there’s no point the records just sitting there. Might as well get some money out of them.” Quite a bit of money too - 150 rand per bag. I guess the quality of the leather compensates for what’s on (or what was on) the record - especially the one about “25 years of SA Sporting Highlights 1950-1975.”
More ingenuity down the road at the Limnos Bakers, where food artist Peter Groseciywicz (don’t ask me to repeat it) was putting the finishing touches to his chocolate World Cup, a piece of confectionary art replete with the curves and waves - and bare-chested man - of the original.
Unfortunately the artist was a man of few words and not very keen on talking about his work - a disgrace to his community! He did say, though, that it was pure chocolate and would last a couple of years. That’s about when the sweet taste of success will be wearing off for those who win the real thing.
Tickets are a prized possession.
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To quote from the words of musician Lou Reed: "First thing you learn is you always got to wait." While the Bronx bard was referring to a purchase of certain contraband materials, he could have been speaking of life at South Africa 2010. For those of us following the World Cup, patience is not just a virtue but also a necessity. The key is to remember/hope that it will eventually get sorted. Think otherwise and this could be a long and painful trip.
A foray back into the world of being a fan has proved as much. Sunday saw me given the time to collect a couple of actual match tickets, paid for and everything. This in itself was the end of an exceedingly lengthy process; I originally applied for them almost 18 months ago. I first had to go through a process of wondering whether my applications had been accepted. This was followed by the Meat Loavian emotion of two out of three not being bad, as only one of my requests was refused. Next up was the tension of December's World Cup draw. I discovered my fate while watching on in a Jerusalem bar and that night spent a shekel or two in celebrating the possession of tickets for both Netherlands v Denmark and Brazil v Ivory Coast. Both pretty decent, as I am sure you will agree.
Getting hold of the sainted bits of paper is itself a rigmarole, with host cities only having one collection point. Unlike previous tournaments, the tickets must be collected in the country itself. This perhaps was introduced by FIFA to try and quell ticket-touting, a practice now only allowed to be carried out by executive members themselves.
Staying in a city like Johannesburg can mean a long journey to collect your booty. An unassuming corner of highly-developed suburb Sandton is where fans must collect theirs in the country's biggest city. I twice drove past the building in question before a line of replica shirts confirmed that my satellite navigation was indeed working. Time to join the queue and wait.
Mind you, in South Africa a queue is an arbitrary concept. They seem to snake from several different directions to a point of focus where those nominally in charge decide who shall be going first. These officious-looking people maintain their authority until a question is asked, at which point a familiarly blank look of incomprehension descends. Those angry enough to question the process or lack of it are wasting their breath and blood pressure. This is the way it is. As my host often reminds me: "This is Africa."
The voices of dissent for such chaotics are usually either Western European or American, societies for whom the breakdown of any process is a crisis point. Complaining gets you nowhere; 'grin and bear it' really is sound advice. I heard one of my colonial cousins demand to know how long he would have to wait, the resulting shrug further increasing his dander. By then, I was through the gates and into the promised land of the ticket hall. After two attempts with my non-endorsed credit card, the tickets were mine, the process done in less than a minute. Thanks were offered to the helpful staff and I was back into the streets, only to be met by a Londoner asking if I should want to sell any of my spares.
The tout, for this was surely his occupation, had provided a reminder of the ways of the old country, a different speed of existence. After replying in the negative, I forged on past him.
I had planned to watch England v USA at the local down the road but abandoned the idea when the others in the plan cried off. A good thing, too, because I could spend those two hours spreading the message of football to one of the few remaining dark corners.
Let me explain. I share my Cape Town apartment with Boris, a Cameroonian-Russian FIFA volunteer, Alex, who works at an art gallery, and her American boyfriend Keith. While Boris and I were rubbing our hands with anticipation at the match-up, and Alex was immersed in, well, art history on her Mac, Keith was left bemused. So what should have been an engrossing two hours of football became instead Soccer 101 as I (Boris sought refuge in his extreme youth) tackled Keith’s questions. And in those two hours the front page of The Sun was played out in full reality.
“So why’s David Beckham not playing? Isn’t he, like, England’s biggest star? That’s what we’ve been told back Stateside.” Pass, next question please. “Your season is nine months long? Isn’t that too long? Our baseball season is long and that’s only, like, seven months.” Yes, but even your World Series doesn’t really extend beyond the eastern seaboard. Our UEFA Champions League covers more air miles and that’s just one tournament in the season. “So your players have to be from the country they play for, right? What about England’s coach? Why’s he Italian?” Best not to ask that around Soho Square, Keith.
And so it went, with questions ranging from transfer fees to TV audiences. Mercifully we didn’t touch on offside or else we’d still be talking. By half-time Alex had had enough and retired with her Mac and art history but Keith stuck it out manfully till the end, by which time he’d learnt enough to appreciate the one point his team had picked up.
He was astounded by the commentator’s observation that the American game involves 90 million people - and, as I told him, American businesses are among FIFA’s biggest sponsors. He was sufficiently moved to try for a ticket to one of their next games but - best, perhaps, for all concerned - they are up north and he can’t get leave from his work here.
As for me, I’ve done my bit for football and am now settling down to watch the match highlights that I missed. I have a few hours before the next round of questions - Keith has just discovered that my day job involves cricket. “So you guys play for, what, five days?”
|Australian football fans camp at Kingsmead cricket ground during the World Cup
South Africans are known for their hobby of loving to hate Australians, but the World Cup seems to be changing even that. A bus load of Socceroos supporters, en route to the airport for their first match against Germany in Durban, went trundling up the busy Jan Smuts Avenue in Hyde Park on Sunday morning.
They were greeted by a parade of vuvuzela-bearing South Africans at the traffic lights outside Hyde Park Shopping centre. South Africans waved flags and cheered as the bus went past, and they all seemed to know it was their great enemy in cricket and rugby that they were welcoming with such festivity.
The Australian fans were in good spirits, and waved to crowds, while one of them plastered his green and yellow scarf against the window. He was one of about 80 Australian supporters, all wearing the colours of their team. They are travelling along a mostly traffic-free route to the OR Tambo International and will land in Durban well in time to catch the kickoff.
Uruguay became the second team to complain about theft from their hotel rooms this week (with Greece being the first) and the second team not to press charges. Uruguayan and South African media reported that $12,000 had been stolen from players’ rooms at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town while the team was embroiled in battle with France on Friday night.
Ernesto Rodriguez became $4,000 poorer while Daniel Marotta lost double that amount. Police were called in to study the surveillance camera footage and found that a member of the Uruguay delegation may have been the thief. Team officials then decided not to press charges.
The Greek team also decided against make an official complaint to security forces after they reported that $15,000 was stolen from them at the Beverley Hills Hotel in Durban earlier this week. Head of Police General Bheki Cele visited the team, who said they don’t care about the money, but want to focus on the tournament.
They might be ruing their decision not to seek justice after the three people accused of mugging two Portuguese and a Spanish journalist were convicted and sentenced on Saturday. The journalists were robbed at gun point of laptops, passports and cash believed to be worth $50,000. The incident took place at the Hekpoort Hotel in the Magliesburg, an hour outside Johannesburg, on Wednesday night.
Two of the three were convicted of robbery with aggravating circumstances, and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment each while the third was found guilty of receiving stolen property and will spend four years behind bars. Six men who robbed a Chilean fan in Mpumalanga will appear in court on Monday. The cases are being heard at one of the 56 special World Cup courts that were set up for the tournament.
June 12, 2010
In the past 24 hours I’ve violated some of the most basic rules about travelling in South Africa and have remained hale and hearty and able to type out my experiences. I might never tell my mum about this but it’s been exhilarating, certainly liberating and instructive - but something I would recommend only with many conditions.
Here’s the story. My digs are a couple of miles from the Cape Town Stadium; a distance perfect for walking by day, especially when the sun is out, and even at a reasonable hour after dark (if you don’t mind the cold). I was told not to try walking on my own at night, especially with laptop and camera and other accessories of the modern-day journalist. After the France-Uruguay game on Friday night, that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t really have a choice; no cab would go that short distance and anyway the roads were clogged.
So, braced for the chilling wind and anything else the night might bring, I stepped out onto Main Street, Green Point. Not a passing cab in sight. Perfect. I turned eastwards and started trudging. Within minutes I was part of a fairly large community of people all faced with the same predicament and all walking homewards - or to the nearest open bar. Their chatter, the blasts of the vuvuzela and the more comforting sound of the occasional police squad car kept me company almost to my doorstep.
I’ve had hairy World Cup most-match moments - most notably at a village train station in Germany at 2 in the morning, and on a train carriage where I was the only person who was not a drunk (and angry) Dutch fan. Friday night was a walk in the park.
Emboldened by that, I decided this morning to hit Long Street, the touristy centre of Cape Town. Don’t walk about too much on your own, the cabbie said, “a man gets tempted by things”. I didn’t quite get what he meant by that, which was reason enough to ignore his advice. I’m glad I did. While Long Street was typically touristy, and I was twice approached by beggars, the most interesting thing there was the Ethiopian meal I had.
Just down the road, though, was the FIFA Fan Fest on Grand Parade where a sizeable number of Capetonians and tourists defied the grey, damp weather to gather and, among other things, watch South Korea beat Greece. Being a Saturday, it was a lovely family occasion that even the overt corporate presence couldn’t detract from. In fact giving the on-screen action a run for its money was the five-a-side kids’ game on the “pitch” alongside, where soccer moms and dads watched proudly as their sons kicked lumps out of each other. A good way of keeping warm, I guess.
It helped that there was blanket security; the cops were everywhere, observant but not intrusive and affording one a sense of security. Yet I could see what the cabbie meant - the side streets were comparatively empty and, though the police were a shout away, there was an unfamiliar sense of unease. Unfamiliar - let me explain why. I’m from Calcutta, India, and I’ve walked alone on the streets at night without once feeling remotely threatened (not even during the time of “Stoneman”, who specialised in smashing in the heads of pavement-dwellers at the time of night I was out, and in roughly the same locality). And it’s been like that in most Indian cities, with the exception of Delhi (which, when you think about it, isn’t really an Indian city). There’s just a feeling you get that, should anything happen to you, help is always a shout away.
And so it was in Cape Town. I won’t be trying this too often and certainly not in Johannesburg but I will walk as much as I can for the sights and sounds only the World Cup can produce. I think it’ll be worth it.
When empty seats stood out like big, yellow pimples at Soccer City on Friday, many thought the organisers worst fears were confirmed - people were staying away. But shortly after kick-off the stands were suddenly packed.
Did the extra people get caught in the traffic that crippled Johannesburg? How did the stadium fill up by the time the match began? It has since emerged that the gridlocked traffic in northern Johannesburg was caused by people on their way to the FIFA fan park in Sandton and not by fans en route to Soccer City.
The empty seats were filled by volunteers and people who took part in the opening ceremony. One such participant, who performed in the group that built and then took down the mini-calabash, said that he was on his way to Nasrec to watch the match on the big screen, when he was told that he and 95 others could go into the stadium. He said he had no idea why they had suddenly been given tickets, but that they were in too much of a hurry to catch the kick-off to bother asking. They ran back to the stadium and made it in time to see the first touch of the ball.
A few hours earlier, it had emerged that football fans who had booked tickets through the bank, First National Bank (FNB), would be denied their tickets and could not go to matches because of a payment problem. Despite having proof of payment and reference numbers, those people were told that FIFA had cancelled their booking because they were unable to claim the money from FNB.
Twenty minutes before kick-off a local news channel reported that those people were still waiting to see if they would be granted their tickets. Queues were snaking outside the ticketing centre in Sandton but neither FIFA nor FNB was willing to comment about the situation at that stage. Could those people have been the reason for the empty block at yesterday’s opener?
June 11, 2010
Mahindra's board display
© Getty Images
Among the advertising signs that dot the sidelines on all World Cup pitches is one familiar to most Indians - Mahindra Satyam is one of the eight World Cup sponsors, the first from India, and is tasked with handling the IT and software side of tournament.
This isn’t newsy until put in context: 18 months ago, Satyam was at the centre of India’s largest corporate scam, when the company’s founder confessed to having inflated the accounts by $1.5 billion. The scandal - dubbed India’s Enron for the similarity in scale and style of operations - shook the country and cast a shadow over the flagship IT industry.
When the scam broke in January 2009, Satyam was India’s fourth-largest software services company and its founder Ramalinga Raju a leader of the industry and a hero to the thousands of Satyam employees, called “associates”; within days Raju was in jail (where he now awaits trial), the stocks plummeted and were taken off the major global bourses and, eventually, the company was handed over to a government-appointed panel before being bought by engineering giants Mahindra.
So how did such a tainted company remain a FIFA sponsor, rubbing billboard shoulders with the likes of MacDonalds, Budweiser and Castrol?
Thing is, Satyam - the name means “truth” - was highly rated on deliverables, building its market value and reputation on the strength of its appreciative clientele; the general consensus was that the rot was only at the top, the company’s core was good. And so it remained on board with FIFA, both sides honouring a deal signed in 2007 that’s worth around $20 million to the company. It was a sponsor at last year’s Confederations Cup and now has 150-odd “associates” at the World Cup, looking after online ticketing, accreditation and transportation, among others.
The relationship hasn’t been without glitches; soon after Mahindra took over Satyam they fought to have their name incorporated into the logo to be used by FIFA. They were denied, and the single-name logo was used at the Confederations Cup - and, indeed, on the match tickets for this tournament. But some deal must have been struck because the full name is up on the pitchside billboard. Truth will, it seems, out…
You know World Cup fever has truly hit Cape Town when it’s the day before a rugby Test at Newlands and the local papers have moved it to the inside pages. The Springboks play France on Saturday at the spiritual home of South African rugby, the Tri-Nations champions against the Six Nations winners and, though it’s being billed here as a World Championship showdown of sorts, you’d have to look hard to find the previews and other stories.
For those not au fait, Newlands is to the Springboks what the Maracana is to Brazil, Wembley to England and Eden Gardens and the MCG to the Indian and Australian cricket teams. This is where the epochal 1995 Rugby World Cup began, with the Springboks beating Australia 27-18 (the more memorable final, when Nelson Mandela wore the No. 6 jersey, was held at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park); this is also where the SA Rugby Union has its offices.
So a Test against France is pretty big – the match is, in fact, a sell-out – and some of the French and Uruguayan football reporters were planning to watch the practice. But the football is bigger, if only for the moment. A local journalist friend told me his paper had a serious editorial debate over covering the Test – could they spare the newsprint and the manpower? - before deciding to go with history and tradition.
All fairly depressing news – in fact not much news – for rugby fans but it could have been worse; the cricket Test against West Indies, which began on Thursday, finds no mention anywhere.
A footie fans blows his own trumpet
I awake to a familiar parping sound... a noise that is becoming a big, big part of my South Africa sojourn: the inescapable drone of the vuvuzela. It seems the school next door to my digs starts at the ungodly hour of 7am and that the children also enjoy a good sing-song ahead of double Maths. I am going to have to get used to this.
Today, as I am reminded several times by the car radio is "World Cup Day", granted an almost festive status by the new greeting of "Happy World Cup Day" that all callers receive. Every other vehicle has a flag and the ever-present streetside sellers are always happy to furnish those who have so far gone without.
Yet this is also a morning after the night before. Thursday night saw a worldwide audience greeted to South Africa by a star-studded concert broadcast. The radio dj chatters excitedly about the various celebrities present at Soweto's Orlando stadium as his various acolytes hail a good night had by all. An hour later, however, and the event has come at a terrible cost. The announcement of the death of Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter after a road accident on her way back from the concert draws a harrowing shadow over the previous night's good times.
The resultant cost to the opening ceremony is catastrophic. A terse statement from the Nelson Mandela Foundation confirms the feared news: the grieving father of the Rainbow Nation will not now be in attendance at Soccer City. While perfectly understandable, it is a crushing blow to the event. The scale of the man's importance to his country had been confirmed the previous night by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. For as great a man as Tutu to deliver such an impassioned and humbled eulogy distils a national affection for a man whose presence continues to dominate his country.
Tutu, himself a man of fully 78 years old, showed the likes of Black Eyed Peas and John Legend how to work a crowd in a wondrous exhortation to the legend of "Mandiba", as Mandela is known to his people. Dressed in full Bafana Bafana regalia, Tutu threw himself around the stage, exhibiting a stagecraft borne of a thousand church services and political rallies. It is truly a pity that such a tragic course of events has meant the world will not get to see Mandela granted further adulation.
Nevertheless, the show must and will go on. Six hours before kick-off and the Soccer City gates are open as fans begin to pile in. Normally gregarious Mexican fans shrink into the background as flags wave and, yes, vuvuzelas parp. A celebration, tempered though it now is, is entering full session.
June 10, 2010
Vicky's B&B is a business flourishing in the Kayelitsha township.
At noon on Wednesday, Cape Town’s city centre and tourist hotspots were hostage to the vuvuzela-blowing fans who came out in droves to show their support for Bafana Bafana.
A few miles away, Victoria (last name not known) went about her business as usual, charring goat’s heads that she would later split into two and sell for R 17 (approx $2). She needs to sell a dozen a day to help feed her family of eight; she’s barely touched double figures over the past two days. The World Cup, which has taken away a lot of her custom, is a sore point with her.
Victoria plies her trade in Langa, one of the townships that surround Cape Town and serve as stark contrasts to its picture-postcard scenery. The townships were urban slums where non-whites were resettled from areas closer to the city centre, usually in appalling conditions and always in segregation – blacks, Cape coloured, Indian.
Though the segregation has ended, Langa and the larger township of Kayelitsha are still largely black-populated, and conditions in and around the tin shacks are still far from ideal. As our driver put it drolly when we set out: "My name is Thangis and my biggest hope is that you are all on the right bus. Because I don’t want you to get there and ask about the wine-tasting."
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"The first thing my dad will give me when I meet him at the airport is my gun," says the chap sat next to me on the plane. Johannesburg then, a place named my new friend as the "world's most dangerous city" is where I shall be spending five weeks. To a sleep-deprived mind such information can only serve to heighten the fear of the unknown though my quivering response to him that people live and work here every day is met with a wry smile and a "you'll be OK".
That the plane full of fans in replica shirts also re-grounded one with the knowledge that it is a football tournament I shall be covering. While Mexicans on the second leg of a 31-hour journey are deep in sleep, some excitable England supporters keep much of the rest of the cabin awake as they chatter all night in the aisles while quaffing Virgin Atlantic's house red.
Negotiation of Oliver Tambo Airport is relatively painless, any problems caused by my own fatigue. Passport control serves as a signal for the Mexicans to awake from their slumber and "Me-hi-ho" are regaled in full voice throughout baggage claim, customs and into a packed entrance hall. Beyond there, my trusty steed awaits, a compact Daihatsu later mocked by my welcoming hosts at my North Johannesburg digs and so begins my negotiation of the infamous road system.
So far so good on that score, the roads get you from A to B and everything. Just watch for those swerving mini-bus taxis. For good measure I later drive to collect my accreditation, a process perhaps not as smooth as at previous tournaments but nevertheless completed with little problem. The wait gives me time to chat with other journalists, including a Swedish contingent that contains former Swedish international Glenn Stromberg, now shorn of the flowing hippy locks of his 1980s pomp. His co-commentators quiz me about England's team for Saturday and debate the relative merits of Robert Green and Joe Hart.
The drive home allows me to gauge the hosts’ mood. Flags are on every vehicle, and sold at every junction - the Daihatsu now has its own Bafana Bafana adornment - while pop radio is littered with discussion and the gush of excitement. All roads now point to Friday, Soccer City and South Africa v Mexico.
The billboards proclaiming that South Africa is ready can be seen on virtually every highway in and around the ten venues. Now comes the acid test to see whether the first World Cup on African soil can actually deliver.
This was always going to be a World Cup of contrasts. On the one hand, unprecedented colour and atmosphere, a genuine desire to please and a strong sense of destiny.
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Spotted in the credentialing tent on the sandy red dirt beside the International Broadcasting Center: longtime Arsenal manager and unearther of prodigies, Arsene Wenger.
He wore a dark grey suit; modern, square, tinted glasses; a three-quarters buttoned white shirt and some boxy black leather loafers that looked far too hip for the salt-and-pepper-maned workaholic. Naturally, the we sidled up to him to glean some insight on tomorrow's stars.
"May I ask you a question?" we asked, turning to our trusted pickup line. Wenger looked at us up and down, stopping briefly on our ESPN badge, and scowled. Then, in the baritone of a high school principal, Wenger sternly said, "No."
Keep your eye on this space for a running tab on our futile advances to potential interviewees.
June 9, 2010
Team USA fans have arrived in record numbers
The flight from Dubai to Cape Town was like a United Nations pool bus – people speaking different languages, of different nationalities, united by their love of football. There were Croats, Mexicans, Spaniards, Swiss, a few expat South Africans returning home – but the loudest, dare I say most enthusiastic bunch, was of the American tourists coming to watch the soccer.
Their enthusiasm was to be marvelled at: some had travelled 16 hours from LA to Dubai, with another ten hours on the haul to Cape Town but their wisecracks and chatter didn't show any signs of jetlag. Yes, the Americans may be overweight and over-noisy but they are over here, and in record numbers – the largest ticket sales for World Cup 2010 outside South Africa was in the USA.
It's only the latest confirmatory sign of the sport's growing popularity in the US – or, as Time magazine said in a five-page spread in its latest edition, "Soccer is America's game". It's actually a simple case of Americans putting their mouth where their money has been for a long time – some of FIFA's biggest, and oldest, corporate partners are US companies, and Nike, though a newer entrant in football, is already a key player in the global game.
So who are these fans backing? My fellow passengers were non-discriminatory – their tickets weren't just for matches involving the USA. There are signs, however, that they have acquired football's most distinct cultural trait – a sense of rivalry bordering on tribalism. I asked them who they'd be supporting and Jason, an ad executive from Houston, said with feeling: "Anyone but Mexico." Their version of the Tebbit Test will come if and when Herculez Gomez – born to Mexican immigrants, plays in Mexico - turns out for the USA. It's never easy being a football fan.