Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"We're not really a soccer nation". Er, yes you are...

Even on a non-football related trip to the Kruger National Park for a few days away from the chaos of Johannesburg, I couldn't escape the aftermath of the World Cup. Aside from seeing large plastic footballs adorning signposts, even as we entered the Orpen Gate into Kruger and seeing the majestic Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit stand empty, one man struck a nerve.

Stopping off in the tourist town of Dullstrom (apparently it's the place to go fly fishing), my fellow road tripper Dan and I were having a quiet drink and a well deserved break when an Afrikaans man came up to chat to us. Unsurprisingly, we got onto the topic of the World Cup. Much had been made before the World Cup over whether Afrikaners would support the tournament and the team but in this instance, such fears seemed unfounded. Having gone to his first football match, the pre-tournament warm up between Portugal and Mozambique in Jo'burg, he was enthusiastic about watching more when he suggested that he might start to follow Manchester United. I didn't have the energy to question why he would choose an English team over a South African one. I had just driven 300 km at that point. Didn't Afrikaners hate the English? They have good reason (after all the Brits invented concentration camps). But then Man Utd is not just an English team but a global brand. Why not choose a local team, although I'm not sure he would have known who his local team was (Mpumalanga Black Aces of the PSL for those who were wondering). 

It was when he said "We're not really a soccer nation" that I had to bite my tongue. If he was referring to an Afrikaner nation, then I could understand although even within this group of South Africans there is a footballing history. However I got the impression that he was referring to South Africa as whole. Instead of jumping headfirst into an argument and pointing out to him that soccer (as it is called here) is actually the most popular sport in the country by far, historically and currently, I just smiled and nodded. It was far easier.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Grassroots football without the grass

I've discovered that the end of the World Cup does not have to be a bad thing in the world of football. After hanging out yesterday afternoon with a couple of friends in one of the shebeens in my area, we came across a local game in Malvern between two sides playing for money, something that I've come across many times before and have even participated in it (I gave up though when a striker kicked my face in - it was a 50/50 ball and as goalkeeper, I managed to pounce on it a second before he got there. OUCH!). While the pitch had goalposts and nets, there was little in the way of grass. It was a dusty, bumpy pitch with grooves in the earth to mark out the boundaries. Not something that the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi would fancy playing on!

 Give me my beer!!

 Relaxing in the shebeen

Dan was wearing his Kaizer Chiefs shirt and people thought that he might be from the club; maybe a scout ready to unearth the next Pienaar? The sight of two white Englishmen armed with their cameras confused the row of people that lined the street to watch the game. Maybe we were professional photographers or journalists? The great thing about being in the shebeen and at the football match is that people are genuinely pleased to see you. Throughout the course of my time in South Africa, I have been welcomed by people everywhere. Sometimes I've felt guilty about owning a big camera when I've been with people that have had a lot less than me but it's also proved to be a great ice breaker. So many times, I've struck up conversations with various people after taking photos of them or with them.

Faking injury isn't just an elite football problem. Apparently a bottle of water can cure an ankle injury. Who'd have thought?

Keeper completely misses the ball. Rob Green must be his role model...

As Peter Alegi blogs, getting back to grassroots football is a welcome relief for many of us after the commercialism of the World Cup. 

 The pitch was of a similar quality to Wembley

 Tiverton Town don't get many more spectators

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fly the Flag Fridays: clinging to the past

With my cynical hat now firmly back on after the euphoria of the World Cup, the latest attempts to retain some semblance of national unity post-tournament has had me rolling my eyes, shaking my head and muttering in disbelief. In the build-up to the World Cup, South Africa had "Football Fridays" where every Friday South Africans were encouraged to wear their Bafana shirts to work and/ or other national colours. In the aftermath of the tournament, Football Fridays have become "Fly the Flag Fridays" in which South Africans are encouraged to continue wearing the shirts of the various national sports teams. Apparently, Football Fridays were a success as they were "a meaningful collective experience of a lifetime". I know I moan on about this but how meaningful is it to wear a football shirt and wave a flag (today that would make me an English Kiwi)?

I first heard this on the radio one morning recently as I was driving to work. I couldn't believe this. I fail to see any substance behind this call for continued flag waving. There is no more excitement to fuel this simplistic nationalist exercise. Maybe a fraction of the populace might get excited about the Tri-Nations rugby but few are going to go out buy Springbok shirts in the same manner as Bafana shirts. Our bank balances are smarting after the World Cup. Fly the Flag Fridays seems a dismal failure anyway. Bafana shirts are difficult to spot now, the vuvuzela is silent and some of the flags adorning the highways are in a questionable state. We are reaching the death knells of hyper-nationalism, the denial stage. Clinging to the highs many got from the World Cup, many want to relive that feeling but not all good things last. Reality (whatever that is) tends to get in the way. Time to get back on with the daily grind of Jo'burg life.

And to make matters more farcical, President Jacob Zuma wants one of the SA cities to host the 2020 Olympics. Unifying the nation through fencing, archery and synchronised diving?! Or maybe as I'm not South African, I just don't get it?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Conspiracy theory of a car guard

As I pulled out of the parking space, wound down the window and tipped the car guard, he saw the England flag over on my wing mirror.

"Yoh! You boys did badly baba!", he exclaimed.

"I know. We were useless. It's been a great World Cup though".

"It was good but the referees stopped some teams who deserved it from going through. They were racist!"

"What do you mean?"

"The European referees stopped African teams from going through".

"What? Like Bafana and Ghana?" (Olegario Benquerenca of Portugal officiated at the Uruguay - Ghana match when Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez handled THAT ball off the line and Asamoah Gyan missed the subsequent penalty. I've lost count how many people claim that Swiss referee Massimo Busacca had no right to send off Bafana keeper Itumeleng Khune against Uruguay)

"Yeah, the racist referees wanted to keep Africans out. They [Europeans] want to keep football for themselves".

I wasn't in the mood to argue so I just smiled, nodded and drove off. This was supposed to be "Africa's turn" but the Europeans seem to have done a smash and grab.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Time to catch up on a month of lost sleep

It is over. Jo'burg life seems to be reverting to normal as the traffic chaos in the city centre resumes. Vuvuzelas are absent from the landscape while Bafana shirts get put back into the cupboard (perhaps never to see the light of day again?). The nationwide hangover is beginning. What can we talk about now? Conversations become awkward as people struggle to think of things to discuss. SABC told us to "Feel it. It is here!", but it no longer is. The PSL season is too far away and pre-season friendlies seem a hollow, empty replacement. Kaizer Chiefs v Eleven Arrows from Namibia just doesn't inspire me the way Ghana v Uruguay did. Manchester United v Philadelphia Union is not a patch on Germany v Argentina and I really cannot get excited about Tiverton Town v Royal Marines. Having waited years for this, I am left stumbling around trying to work out where the past month has gone.

South Africa should give itself the proverbial pat on the back for such an exciting tournament. Of course there have been a few blips but then no tournament is without problems. It has been a month-long party feeling, desperately trying to fit in work around the football. The hospitality has been so warm and friendly that it will be difficult to match in future World Cups. Jo'burg has been transformed, if only temporarily

Reading the papers yesterday morning, it was striking that so many companies had taken out full page adverts congratulating the country for hosting the tournament. It's a shameless attempt by these companies to capitalise on the success of the tournament but it's everywhere in the city; billboards, radio stations and TV. The self-congratulatory tone will continue for a while but even that will eventually disappear.

Adverts from yesterday's Sunday Times

The initial plan for yesterday was to head to Melrose Arch at lunchtime to make sure we got parking and to soak up the pre-match atmosphere. Melrose Arch is a fascinating place in Johannesburg. Set behind huge walls and numerous electric fences, it aims to create the feeling of a cosmopolitan town centre with numerous shops and restaurants lining the streets. It is in essence a city within a city. The marketing describes it as "Open spaces replace the cage and cocoon. Life pulsates on the streets once again". Yet the cage is still there, just not so readily apparent. Its fortifications prevents the surrounding city from encroaching; its street life accessible only to the socially mobile middle classes with plenty of disposable income. Gijsbert and I thought we'd try something different after being at the fan parks for other games, but after a couple of R30 beers (which is a lot in Jo'burg), our bank balances were screaming for us to leave, that and our friends were going elsewhere! In one sense it was a shame. Within the two hours that we spent there, crowds of Spanish and Dutch supporters were filling the bars and lining the streets, a mixture of tourists and locals. The exclusivity of the place created a vastly different ambiance than the experiences I've had elsewhere. Apparently, over 10,000 people were there to watch the final. But by that time, we weren't.

In the end, we ended up back at the fan park in the centre of Jo'burg, that tried and tested place. Beer was half the price of Melrose Arch and the food was cheap. It was just as packed for the final as it was for the Bafana v France match that we watched there. Regardless of it being the final, there were still stalls that were closed, an indication that the fan parks have not been as successful as it has been claimed. There must have been more Spanish fans than Dutch ones and when Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal deep into extra time, those in red began singing, dancing and blowing their vuvuzela while the Dutch fans just stood there motionless. Seeing as I was with a group of the latter (I even had a bright orange wig on), we left soon after the final whistle but I can imagine there was a big party afterwards.

The World Cup is gone for another four years but I might need most of that time to recover. I'm sitting at my desk a sleep-deprived man and finding it difficult to construct a coherent sentence together. I've had the time of my life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Obsession with legacy

As we approach the end of the first World Cup on African soil, attention is turning to what legacy the tournament leaves for South Africa. I find myself constantly wrestling between my hopes and my cynicism. SA now has world class stadiums but who is going to use them? Many roads have been improved but are the majority who don't drive going to feel the benefits? Broadband internet capacity has increased but what good is that if you don't have access to a computer? Tourists have flocked to the country and spent their money but if you're not involved in the tourist industry, do you really benefit? The Gautrain has begun operating but this only serves a small section of Jo'burg society and the money spent could have been used upgrading the national rail network. It has been a month-long party but has it been much of a party if you still don't have access to basic sanitation and power? Every time I see a positive, negatives appear.

The issue of legacy is dominating the media at the moment. This morning, I came across this opinion piece in the Mail & Guardian by Richard Calland regarding the social legacy left by the tournament. Calland makes some salient points, especially when he says, "Apartheid schooled this country in organising things for the benefit and enjoyment of the few, at the expense of the many. The World Cup was no different from that; a First World show superimposed upon a putrid, demeaning Third World squalor". The juxtaposition of football stadium and informal settlement reminds us that very little has fundamentally changed. The search for a social cohesion in the World Cup is very a much a middle class agenda, a feel-good device that allows these people behind their "higher (electrified) walls" to wave their flags and 'be' proudly South African. Are people in the townships really as desperate to find this paper-thin unity or are there more pressing concerns? Do they feel as if they are the same as those middle class suburbanites? If anything, my experiences in the World Cup suggest class and economic divides have been reinforced.

Countering my cynical side and agreeing with Calland, I've seen people walking the streets of Jo'burg that I never thought I would see. The middle class are re-engaging with Johannesburg in a way that would have been virtually unheard of only a few months ago; taking Metrorail trains, minibus taxis and buses to the stadiums. But as my brief optimism ebbs away, I realise that we are living in a World Cup bubble that will soon be cruelly popped. I hope I'm proved wrong.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oranje, boerewors and xenophobia

A two day football hiatus ended with the first of the semi-finals last night between the Netherlands and Uruguay. I had decided to return to the fan park in Mary Fitzgerald Square, the scene for my roller coaster ride that was Bafana's win over France. I arrived at the park with a couple of friends early to soak up the atmosphere but the only soaking up was that of alcohol. It was dead. It seemed that there were more police than fans, although this did improve just before kick-off. Over half the stalls selling food and crafts were closed, as if they knew that it wasn't going to be worth their while opening up and braving the Jo'burg winter. Looking around at kick-off, I would estimate that only a quarter of the fans at that France game were there last night. 

 Great costumes but these were few in the fan park

Still, 95% of those there were supporting the Dutch, probably for a variety of reasons including Dutch heritage, their attacking style of play and the fact that Uruguay knocked Ghana out/ cheated Ghana out of a semi-final place. If Ghana had played last night, I'm certain that it would have been a different atmosphere. The small crowd cheered and jumped about when Van Bronckhorst scored the opener for the Dutch but were stunned as Diego Forlan was allowed time on the ball to blast home a shot from outside the box. The full time whistle was met with a spontaneous outburst of singing and dancing to the Coca-Cola song Wavin' Flag as the few news crews there were rushing around trying to get footage of the fans deliriously jumping around. It's strange how after football games total strangers come up and hug you in celebration and work their way into your photos. There's been a lot of that this tournament for me.

 Celebrating after the Dutch win - Gijsbert's not a random drunk fan!

Buying a boerewors roll at half time, a Mexican news crew came up to the vendor and started interviewing him about what he was cooking. All of a sudden, they turned around to Ben and I and began asking questions about what we thought about SA food. We kept repeating the word "delicious" as our extended vocabularies eluded our (slightly) drunken selves.

"And what do you think of South African beer?" as they turned to me.

"It's better than English beer!" I blurted out, unable to think of anything more profound. Then they took close-up footage of me eating my roll. It couldn't have been a pleasant sight for those viewers of Estrella Television in Mexico. My apologies...

Yet for all the fun of yesterday, the dominant story in yesterday's newspaper about the threat of xenophobic violence reminded me of all the potential social problems that are bubbling under the facade of the World Cup. Zimbabwean immigrants have allegedly been threatened by South Africans to leave before the end of the World Cup otherwise they face violence and even death. Two years ago, the xenophobic violence in Johannesburg kicked off in the area where I'm currently staying and areas nearby. Seeing the images of one man burning to death on TV and in the newspapers is something I hope isn't repeated again. South Africa is better than this.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Trademarking Africa's Humanity

Having had a great time at the Ghana v Uruguay game, the following day's match at Ellis Park between Spain and Paraguay would have a tough task matching the exhilaration.

Walking through Braamfontein on the way down to the stadium, we discovered a new bar in the area with small televisions on every table plus a big screen. Sitting down for the Argentina v Germany game that afternoon, it was obvious that the vast majority of the bar was supporting Argentina. When Argentina went close, the patrons would be on the edge of their bar stools; when Germany scored, they were visibly upset. Why would so many South Africans support a national team that a.) wasn't theirs and b.) wasn't an African team? There are a number of possible explanations:
  1. They are attracted by the global names: Messi, Tevez and of course Maradona
  2. They are attracted by the attacking brand of football that they play
  3. They want to keep the World Cup in the southern hemisphere
  4. It's an anti-European/ colonial reaction
Points one and two were pretty obvious. People would know generally know more about Messi & co than Schweinsteiger and Podolski. Point three was a bit of a surprise. On the train on the way back from the Ghana game, one woman was saying that now all the African teams had been knocked out, she wanted the cup at least to stay in the southern hemisphere. Desperate sounding but this view was repeated in the bar. Maybe I should want to Spain, Germany or the Netherlands to win to keep it in the north? I base the final point on a halftime conversation in the toilets.

"You don't want an all-European final do you?"

"Er, I don't mind, but I'm European."

"You don't know what it means to us. We don't want Europe to keep the World Cup. Europe is too strong. It needs teaching a lesson."

"Oh, ok..."

And as he left, he exclaimed, "F**k the Europeans!" Nice. Unfortunately for him, he didn't get his wish as the Germans thrashed the Argentinians 4-0.

Being lazy, we decided to get a private taxi from the bar to Ellis Park - I was a little uncomfortable about walking the streets of Hillbrow and Joubert Park in the dark. In a wonderful example of tourist exploitation, the taxi driver wanted to charge twice as much as normal. Eloquently, I replied "f**k off!" and took another taxi, this time for the 'normal' price. We still had to walk the streets of Doornfontein to get to the stadium as the roads had been closed off. This was a World Cup quarter final but you couldn't tell. No crowds of people making their way to the stadium, no build-up of anticipation. This is life in Johannesburg, where the streets empty in the darkness, people afraid of leaving the 'safety' of their homes. The park and ride buses take fans close to the stadium, bypassing the inner city. The park and walk locations even worse still. But then we entered another perimeter and suddenly it burst into life. Fans poured out of the buses. Vendors were selling vuvuzelas , flags and anything else that could be branded with a national flag. Stalls selling a variety of food lined the streets. This atmosphere was unlike the sterile experience outside Soccer City. I could could get my pap and steak/ chicken/ boerewors. Introducing Ben to the delights of South African football food, we sat down and stuffed our faces as we watched the world go by. The vendors were selling their goods through the perimeter fence but the police didn't seem to care.

Enjoying the atmosphere outside the game

Attempting to cook pap


We were a bit short-changed during the game. The most expensive knockout ticket that we had and Spain had the audacity to win it in 90 minutes (all my other knockout games at least went to extra time)! This could have been my third penalty shootout in a row but it wasn't to be. At least the three second half penalties in quick succession (should have been four) added some spice to the fixture. Spain fans dominated the crowd but unlike the Ghana - Uruguay game, the atmosphere seemed muted in comparison. With Ghana as the last African team, South African fans had a lot more emotionally invested in the game. This time, I thought that people were supporting Spain because of the big names such as Torres and Villa, who they had been watching for years on TV. Pockets of (actual) Spanish fans dotted around the stadium were singing, dancing and waving their scarves but few else knew any of the words so a return to the vuvuzela was in order.

As my mind wandered, my eyes met with one of the FIFA logos - KE NAKO. Celebrate Africa's Humanity™. I thought that it was a bit strange that FIFA were telling us to celebrate Africa's humanity as if it was something that had just been discovered. I can't imagine a World Cup in Europe with the slogan Celebrate Europe's Humanity. Why is Africa treated differently in an "actually-they're-just-like-us" way? Then Ben pointed out that why have FIFA trademarked Africa's humanity?! So if any African does something humane, they have to get permission from FIFA? Can FIFA have intellectual property rights on humanity? That's a scary proposition...

Two Englishmen wearing South African and Japanese football shirts at Spain v Paraguay...

Reminiscent of last years chaos at Ellis Park during the Confederations Cup, the park and ride queue was much less a queue, more of a mob. They had clearly learned some lessons from last year such as improved signing but it took a fair while to get back to the car. Sitting in the bus, I realised that my World Cup adventure was coming to an end. That was my last game and with the final on Sunday, it'll be business as usual next week. I'm already thinking about Brazil 2014!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Football Japan Minutecast interview

Here's the link to my interview for Football Japan: http://minutecast.footballjapan.jp/article/155237437.html

I almost sound as if I know what I'm talking about!

Expert? Moi?

Here's the link to the Edinburgh University article on my research and time in SA: http://www.ed.ac.uk/about/edinburgh-global/news-events/news/southafrica-300610

Again, I had no say in the title of the piece!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The drama of Ghana v Uruguay

Yesterday was supposed to be an anti-climax, or so I thought. Last night’s quarter final between Uruguay and Ghana was perhaps the least attractive fixture in the last eight. Worse still, this could have been an England match but the dismal showing of Rooney et al had robbed me of the dream of seeing the Three Lions in action at the business end of the World Cup. I was not happy. But I was so, so wrong.

After watching the Netherlands – Brazil game in a bar (many South Africans have adopted other teams since Bafana fell at the first hurdle), we hurtled down to Park Station to catch the Metrorail to Soccer City, a service free for ticket holders. Jo’burg City Council have been encouraging fans to use public transport to ease match day traffic congestion so we obliged. The problem was that there was insufficient parking for the demand, forcing many to park outside on the streets. This prospect would usually be met with apprehension and in some cases outright refusal but the World Cup has created this temporary cocoon of safety over Johannesburg. Watching throngs of people of all race, class and gender walk the streets of Johannesburg at night just does not happen normally but this time people were happy enough to leave their cars on the pavements while the car guards made a tidy profit. Crammed onto the train, the unusual kept coming. Admittedly a big generalisation, it was bizarre to see the middle classes use the form of transport usually used by the black working class to commute to work. As with last year’s Confederations Cup when I regularly heard comments about how they’d never been in a minibus taxi before, many had clearly never used the train system before. At one level, the World Cup is bringing groups of people together in unusual situations but such is the temporary nature of such an event. The Metrorail network does not serve the need of the middle class northern suburbs and so I cannot see these people continuing to use public transport after the tournament.

Crowds pouring out of the train station
I was a very confused man last night. As an Englishman, I wore my New Zealand football shirt and had my face painted with the Ghanaian flag!

Am I English, Kiwi or Ghanaian?

Reaching Soccer City, the crowds slowly wandered towards the gate. The almost deafening blasts from the vuvuzelas combined with the songs of fans created an exhilarating backdrop to the spectacular calabash stadium.

Approaching Soccer City
Sat down in our seats just before the national anthems (this time I didn’t miss the first twenty minutes of a Ghana game). What was glaringly obvious was that virtually all the fans inside were supporting Ghana. Out of the 84,000 people there, there could not have been more than 2,000 Uruguay fans. As Ben and I discussed throughout the game, we’ve never witnessed such a partisan crowd for a non-host game. Even Bafana v Mexico in the opening game had a sizable number of Mexican supporters. Ghana maybe thousands of miles away but last night was a home game for them. One flag opposite us claimed that "we Kenyans support Ghana". With few supporters coming from either country, the South African spectators got fully behind the African team. The vuvuzelas were back in full force, after a slight lull in previous knockout games. I put this down to the fact that few South Africans would know the words to Ghanaian or Uruguayan songs – the vuvuzela is the lowest common denominator.

The teams line up

The game itself didn’t start too brightly, especially for the Ghanaians. However, they sparked into life towards the end of the half and Sulley Muntari’s cracker in injury time sent the crowd into ecstasy. This worked to our advantage as people were still celebrating into the break meaning the beer and food queues were considerably shorter. This was great news as we were so “looking forward” to yet more bland, rubber sausages®, branded sugary drinks© and mediocre beer™.

Is this food?

The crowd were in jubilant mood in the second half until Diego Forlan’s free kick found the back of the net in the 55th minute. The crowd were stunned. Chances came and went at both ends as the game went into extra time. Whenever Ghana threatened the Uruguayans goal, the vuvuzelas surged up, willing the team on to become Africa’s first World Cup semi-finalist.

And then it all went crazy.

At the death in extra time, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez produced a cynical handball on the line to prevent Dominic Adiyiah’s header from crossing the line. The crowd jumped to their feet, vuvuzelas blasting and flags waving as Suarez was sent off and the penalty awarded. The crowd were already in party mode believing that this was Ghana’s moment but they could not believe their eyes as Asamoah Gyan’s spot kick hit the crossbar. Sharp intakes of breath, heads in hands, slumping back down into the seats; the fairytale ending was shattered. The penalty shootout that followed could have caused any number of heart attacks. All credit to Gyan for stepping up to take the first penalty for Ghana and banishing the failure of a couple of minutes previously as he slotted home his spot-kick. The despair of John Mensah’s saved penalty was quickly supplanted by the euphoria of keeper Richard Kingson saving the next Uruguayan penalty, but this was short lived. Adiyiah missed his and Sebastian Abreu calmly converted to send the South Americans into the last four.

Ghanaian striker Kevin Prince Boateng ran around the pitch in an attempt to get the crowd to cheer for Ghana one last time but the stadium emptied remarkably quickly.

Soccer City emptied in a matter of minutes

However, our night had not finished yet. Taking a wrong turn, we ended up in the middle of the celebrations of the Uruguay fans. Initially annoyed that they had knocked Ghana out, I found that I couldn’t begrudge Uruguay their victory, such was the passion and enthusiasm of the fans. I wasn’t so impressed with the way the South African Police Service handled crowd control. Dressed in their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-esque body armour and wanting us to leave the stadium, they pushed us into the crowd with their batons, forcing us out. I thought that the best way to avoid a crush would be not to push people in the crowd, or maybe I’m being naive? The police did partially redeem themselves when they pulled out a drunken fan from our train carriage, who seemed to determined to start a fight.

Uruguay fans celebrate as the police behind us push us into the crowd

Having jumped on the last train to Johannesburg, it took a very long time as it slowly made its way back to the city but this didn’t spoil one of the best footballing experiences that I’ve ever had.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Football withdrawal symptoms

The two barren, football-free days are finally over. Wimbledon has been a poor substitute, especially as I just cannot get excited about Andy Murray and his ultimately doomed attempt to be the first British male champion since Fred Perry in neolithic times. Fortunately, I had to pick my cousin up from the airport to begin a week crammed full of the beautiful game (although there have been times this tournament when 'beautiful' has been stretched to the limit - NZ v Paraguay anyone?).

The Norweigan Bjorn Heidenstrom cycled and hitchhiked from Oslo to Johannesburg and collecting football shirts from various clubs along the way. These have been made into a giant shirt, which is currently on display in Randburg, Johannesburg. The shirts range from the big global brands such as Manchester United and Chelsea to smaller provincial clubs in the Spanish lower leagues (and Coventry City!).

Try and find a wardrobe big enough for this...

In between cruising the roads of Johannesburg and taking photos of the football stadiums in the city, we stopped for a couple of beers in Soweto in the afternoon winter sun. Across the road, a stall sold football scarves, hats and flags. The waning support for Bafana was evident as the Bafana scarves were cheaper than the Ghana ones. Ghana has become Africa's football darling. This morning, my local pub was flying the Ghanaian flag in a show of African solidarity. This area was also witness to some of the xenophobic violence unleashed on African immigrants that hit Johannesburg a couple of years ago but now they're supporting the foreigners. One minute they're different, the next they're "one of us". 

Displaying a Ghana flag doesn't necessarily mean that attitudes towards African immigrants are going to change

If Ghana beat Uruguay tonight, there'll be a lot of sore heads tomorrow! Which, incidentally, is where I'm off to now, via the pub to watch the Brazil v Netherlands game.

 Football designs on the Soweto cooling towers

Yet for all the fun and laughter of the the World Cup, just remember that not all is rosy in South Africa...

The World Cup is unlikely to have touched the inhabitants of these homes...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Falling on their swords

After I made a few wrong turns and missed the turn on the highway (I blame my navigator!), we eventually made it to Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria for the second round clash between Paraguay and Japan. The security checks at these games have become increasingly laughable. The sight of police officers in body armour are in contrast to the apathetic body searches conducted at the gates. I've walked straight through before without anybody questioning me. This time, they made a cursory check of my pockets but seriously, considering the amount of things I've seen smuggled in to PSL games in peoples' socks, you'd have thought that security would have cottoned on by now. But they haven't. If the metal detectors went off, the stewards didn't seem too interested. FIFA also told us that we would need our ID along with our match tickets but I've not needed it once.

The giant Japan shirt in the stands just before kick off

This time I managed to avoid eating rubber sausage as they still had some pies. Much better than the last pie I had at a football match (Cowdenbeath v Clyde - Scotch Pies have a lesser meat content than the rubber hot dogs!).

If the game was dull, the Japanese fans were in full voice. In the stand below me, one of the hardcore Japanese supporters was constantly on his feet, megaphone in hand (does FIFA really allow them in the ground?) and leading the supporters in chants of "NIPPON! NIPPON!" A fixture featuring two "smaller" teams was unlikely to have many travelling supporters but South African fans came out in force, most of whom were supporting Japan as the underdogs.

 Leading the Japanese support

I clutched my Japan scarf tight as I watched the penalty shootout unfold. Agonizingly, Yuichi Komano's spot-kick cannoned off the crossbar and the Japanese fans around me collapsed in their seats in despair. With Paraguay coming out on top 5-3, the first thing these fans did was to stand up and applaud their team as the players walked over and reciprocated the sentiment. Tears were welling up in their eyes as they struggled to come to terms with the end of their World Cup journey. With my sparse knowledge of a few Japanese words, I shook their hands in commiseration, stopping to hug one fans for whom defeat was clearly too much. They cheered up enough for some photos but stayed behind, shell shocked. Strangely enough, I was more cut up about this defeat than Bafana or England getting knocked out. I hope I get the opportunity to watch Japan live again.

Celebrating despite defeat

So all my teams are now out: Bafana and NZ in the group stage with England and Japan falling at the second round. I'm supporting Ghana now, although I fear that may just be the kiss of death.

Monday, June 28, 2010

My lucky shirt didn't work. Need a new one.

My weekend of football continued yesterday with the eagerly anticipated England v Germany clash followed by my trip to Soccer City for Argentina v Mexico. While at times I've been self-analytical over my wavering support for England, it only took Three Lions pumping from my car radio yesterday morning to get worked up; that and the wearing of my lucky England shirt. Clearly it's not lucky anymore...

Together with my friend Chris, we drove down to Soccer City extremely early in the hope of watching the first game on the big screen. You would have hoped that the organisers would have had a little foresight and erected big screens showing the first game and attracting a captive audience to sell their overpriced junk. But no. I jumped out of the car at the gate (we went straight through security without being questioned) and asked if they were letting people in. Other fans had the same idea but had to wait outside for thirty minutes until the gates opened. I jumped back in the car and we zoomed back into the city to a bar in the city. The national anthem came on and I stood up and sang. A few odd looks but not as many as when I was surrounded by Australians earlier in the week! Unfortunately, Chris was supporting Germany and as the goals flooded in, my heart sank. Staring into my beer, I conceded defeat (graciously I thought). Luckily Chris was a good winner.

Zooming back to Soccer City, we bought some food in the car park. Not the suspect hotdog that I've come to loathe but pap and steak, food synonymous with the local game. It was great to sink my teeth into that once more but having to pay R40 was a little too much (it usually costs R25-30 on a regular match day). It turned out that the FIFA police have told all the informal traders what they must charge, although why, nobody knew. As with other traders that I've spoken to, business has not been what they expected with some struggling to break even. The positioning of stalls has not helped as some are hidden around corners in the dark. Asking the women who served me whether she had many foreign customers, she shook her head. Chris kept asking if they had any beer but no-one did. They have been forbidden to sell beer, probably because it wouldn't be that watery American beer that is served in the ground. The local flavour of a football match can be experienced on match day but you have to search for it. The traders have to register with the city council and have had to go on training courses on food hygiene. Almost as bad as homeowners having to learn how to make cappuccinos if they want to accommodate foreign tourists... Even one Mexican trader selling Mexican wrestling masks had to have accreditation. Yet the ticket touts still operated unhindered.

Reaching my seat (three rows from the front, middle tier, behind the goal), the atmosphere felt incredible. Arguably one of the best that I've experienced as I was sitting just above the mass of Argentinian fans singing and dancing in such an impressive stadium. It was such an exhilarating rush. The vuvuzelas were still there but there were being incorporated into the songs. I may not have much love for the Argentinian team but the fans were brilliant. If Argentina lose to Germany in the quarter finals, the tournament will be poorer for it.

 Argentina fans celebrating in front of the camera

Curiously, I happened to look down in the stand below during the first half to see the police escort the "number 1 fan" of the SA club side Bloemfontein Celtic out of the stand. He'd clearly not been in the correct seat but did not take kindly to being told that he was in the wrong place. I think that this encapsulates a key problem that faces the Premier Soccer League and the Football Association here should they wish to capitalise on the current popularity of the sport in SA. All the PSL games have unreserved seating, which puts off many people from going but when reserved seating is introduced, many local fans often ignore it while the stewards seem unable to do anything about it. There's a balance that needs to be achieved to attract new fans while keeping the current ones.

Soccer City before kickoff

I'm over England's defeat now. It might help that I have three more games to go to!

Ghana progress as I make slow progress in the traffic

The African dream lives on in Ghana after the Black Stars beat USA 2-1 after extra time thanks to Asamoah Gyan's 93rd minute strike. Ghanaian supporters dominated the stadium as many South Africans chose to support the one remaining African team in the tournament. Wearing Bafana shirts but waving Ghanaian flags, this was the most colourful World Cup environment that I have been in so far. The stadium was buzzing after the final whistle and I was glad to see the look of disappointment on Landon Donovan's face. If he's going to mess up my World Cup plans, they're going to get knocked out of the tournament. It's karma!

 Landon Donovan equalising from the penalty spot

However, as with much of my work, the game was secondary to what was happening around it. We left Johannesburg just after 4:15pm, giving us just over four hours before kickoff. We thought that would be enough time to get to our seats seeing as Rustenburg is only 120km away. We were wrong. Getting trapped on the N4 toll road, we trundled along in the queue but, as always in this country, there were idiots who chose to zoom down in the emergency lane, which cause chaos on the way up to the England v USA game a couple of weeks back. This time round, there was a chunky Afrikaans guy in a Toyota Hilux driving slowly up this lane to prevent this from happening. We drove alongside and infuriated the impatient South African drivers but most of them gave up and fell back into line. There were one or two idiots who thought that for the sake of making up a few places in the queue they would drive into oncoming traffic and almost cause horrific accidents. It was satisfying to see them pulled over by the traffic cops! We spent the hours stuck in traffic thinking up ways to get back at these drivers; the best was buying a tray of eggs and throwing them at the windscreens but we didn't pass anywhere that sold eggs.

 Ghanaian fans celebrating during extra time

The park and ride was fine we got onto our bus easily. Problem was that the bus got stuck in traffic itself. Sat in my seat as the match clock ticked over 20 minutes. Not happy. We missed the first goal. Fortunately we saw two more and got extra time.

 The media circus makes a beeline for the Ghanaian fans after the game

If there were a few issues getting to the stadium, it was dramatically worse coming back. The game finished at about 11pm and we got to the pick up point 20 minutes later. That was the last thing that went right. There were no queues, just piles of people pushing and shoving to make up a couple of yards of ground. As time went by, people got more irritated and annoyed. The Englishmen in front of me were complaining that this was the side of the World Cup that the TV cameras never picked up on.

"This system is s**t!", one of them eloquently stated. And it was. Rustenburg park and ride was efficient during the 2009 Confederations Cup but something has gone wrong since.
One of the Americans behind me decided to "blame it on all the Canadians who are here. All two of them!" Some tried to joke but those Englishmen got increasingly grumpy. Some aspect of this World Cup have been incredible, but this was a farce. They should have had this all ironed out last year. Clearly not.

Eventually (sometime past 1am) we made it onto the bus. If that was bad, the traffic on the highway stumbled along. I got home at 5am, six hours after the game had finished.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Got a spare ticket?

I'm heading up to Rustenburg this afternoon to see Ghana v USA. It's an easy choice to decide which team to support; the last African team in the competition or the team that finished above England and messed up all my plans (it's Ghana just in case you're still wondering).

I went to Sandton yesterday to pick up today's match ticket to find masses of fans outside the ticket office and across the road. Thanks to Landon Donovan's goal after 91 minutes against Algeria, England have ended up facing Germany in Bloemfontein tomorrow rather than Ghana in Rustenburg today. England fans were left with tickets that they no longer wanted and were trying to offload them, through official means or otherwise. With few tickets available for England v Germany, these fans had to resort to offering excessive sums of money to those lucky few gripping these golden tickets as they walked out. No-one was prepared to part with them however. I hope Landon Donovan realises what trouble he's caused.

While all this was happening, the Dutch national team walked by. Shame I didn't have my camera on me.

The black market for tickets is rife. Even though FIFA have directed fans to return tickets to them for a refund minus a 10% fee, many are choosing to ignore this. I have been offered tickets for numerous games although I haven't accepted them due to lack of money and there's only so much football I can go to!!! Ticket touts operate under the noses of the police who rarely act on this. A few have been charged, put on trial in one of the World Cup courts, and imprisoned but most operate freely. With group game tickets sometimes selling for a lot less than face value, part of me wishes that I hadn't bought mine through FIFA. Could have saved myself a lot of money.

Got a great weekend of football ahead - Ghana v USA tonight, England v Germany on the big screen before Argentina v Mexico at Soccer City. I wonder how the Argentinian fans are going to react to me wearing my England shirt...?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Inflatable kangaroos, cheese dogs and metal giraffes

In the car on the way to Nelspruit for the Australia v Serbia game yesterday morning, there was an Englishman, a South African supporting England, a South African who had lived in England and a South African who would rather watch paint dry than watch an England game. At one point in the journey, we became concerned that England manager Fabio Capello might have gone AWOL:

Capello travelling in the wrong direction

Forced to open the emergency beer supply when we reached our log cabin 40km outside Nelspruit, we were soon back on the road into the city to watch the England v Slovenia game before going to the stadium. Walking into the pub, we realised that were in a tiny minority; the place was swarming with Australians. None of us had envisaged that football/ soccer was so popular in Oz and were surprised to see so many Socceroos fans.

 Spot the England fan (who then put on an Australia jacket...)

Instead of following the masses, we were adopted by the small number of Serbian fans; my friend's knowledge of some Serbian swearwords and his Nemanja Vidic t-shirt only endeared us to them.  Once we got talking to them, we became confused by their Australian accents. Some of them were Serbs living in Australia, supporting their country of birth against their country of residence although they had absolutely no problems with this.

 Improving Anglo-Serb relations

God Save the Queen played out over the speakers as the players lined up. Standing in front of the TV, I was belting the anthem out only for me to realise that few people were singing along with me. I looked up to see a pub full of Aussies staring at me in amusement. I was equally amused to see a couple of them joining in with me. The Serbs explained to us that they wouldn't usually support someone who has bombed them (!!) such as the US but seeing as were going to support Serbia that evening, they were willing to return the favour and make an exception for us. Relief at the final whistle turned to frustration as news that Landon Donovan had scored deep in injury time for the US to beat Algeria 1-0. It was wasn't so much that this meant that the US had finished top of the group (although that was annoying) but that it meant that England would not be featuring in the quarter final at Soccer City for which I have tickets. I was not a happy man.

Taking the park and ride bus to the stadium, the four of us sat at the back. Admittedly with a few beers inside us, we started out with chants of "SER-BI-A! SER-BI-A! SER-BI-A!" From this, we thought it would be a 'good' idea to pretend to be Serbian, having conversations in a pretend language while pretending to understand this nonsense! Our attempts at a Serbian accent was less Serbian and more Borat but we were still fooling the locals. Bursting into a rousing rendition of Shosholoza was met with incredulity by the other passengers with the man in front in shock, exclaiming: "They know Shosholoza!" As far as he was concerned, the Serbians had made the effort to learn some of their culture, oblivious to the truth. We continued in our broken Serb-lish with Borat accents to chant anything to do with South Africa: "BA-FA-NA! BA-FA-NA! PI-EN-AAR! PI-EN-AAR! MO-KOEN-A MO-KOEN-A!" The passengers were loving our enthusiasm. We were clearly a hit!

Leaving our alter egos at the stadium gate, we sampled the culinary delights on offer in the stadium. Our choice was between hot dogs, cheese dogs and chili dogs. Whether these had ever seen an animal before was dubious and combined with the cheap white bread, it made us feel sick rather than satisfied. We did find a stall selling boerewors rolls at an inflated price but it was too late. We also refused to queue for 30 minutes for a well-known watery American beer. It really does destroy the South African identity of match day.

 Mmmmmmm! Tasty...

Mbombela Stadium from the outside is very impressive with the support struts made to look like giraffes while the seats inside are arranged in a zebra print. I only hope that the tourists realise that there's more to South Africa than animals.

Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
The Aussie fans heavily outnumbered the Serb fans. Most just had scarves and flags but inflatable kangaroos were also popular. Not conforming to stereotypes now, aren't they?! If only there had been an Aussie fan in a prison jumpsuit...

 Skippy the inflatable kangaroo

The game itself was secondary to everything around it. In the first half, stewards had to get the police in to calm down the hardcore Serbian fans who refused to sit in the correct seats. The stewards were helpless and just flapped around until the police came. It was a shame as it killed a little of the atmosphere where I was sitting. Was great to be sitting on the front row though.

 Serb fans before kick off

How Serbia lost that game I don't know, although a goal incorrectly ruled offside and an Australian handball in their area that was missed might have had something to do with it. A couple of Serb fans really did not like the outcome of the match and started shouting abuse at their players. One player had clearly had enough of this and came over with the intent of starting a fight although nothing came of it. Both teams were knocked out of the tournament, with Ghana and Germany progressing from the group. While Serb fans were despondent...

 A solitary, depressed Serbian fan

... the Aussies were in more jubiliant mood as the players did a lap of the pitch, thanking their supporters for making the long journey.

 Aussie fans staying behind to cheer their team

Cheers to the guys who I travelled with for an awesome road trip!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

For a moment we all believed

So Bafana are out of the 2010 World Cup. It wasn't that surprising considering the task they'd left themselves after the 3-0 defeat to Uruguay last week. Beating the French by a handful of goals always seemed unlikely but Bafana surprised most people by actually BEATING THE FRENCH!!! Looking back now, there's a lot of "ifs". If only Katlego Mphela had scored rather than hitting the woodwork against Mexico. If only he'd done the same against France. If only they hadn't capitulated against Uruguay. But this is now in the past. Bafana are out and have the unfortunate honour of being the first host country knocked out in the first round. When the draw was made towards the end of last year, I was glued to my computer screen in my office, wearing my Bafana shirt, makarapa and had my vuvuzela close by. When the names were drawn, I was gutted. In a group with France, Uruguay and Mexico, surely Bafana would get no more than a couple of points. In the end they got 4 points and lost out on goal difference. Maybe some South Africans will be disappointed but they ended the campaign admirably. Ranked 83rd in the world, a draw versus Mexico and a win against former world champions France is a superb return.

Walking across Nelson Mandela Bridge

Walking down to the public viewing area in Newtown, central Jo'burg, the vuvuzelas were going, Bafana shirts were seemingly worn by every other person and flags were flying. Nelson Mandela Bridge was impressive with the massive banners portraying Madiba. As we were nearing Mary Fitzgerald Square, the sound of the vuvuzelas grew ever greater. After getting through security (again they didn't check the socks - another valuable chance to smuggle in alcohol wasted!), the area was busy but by no means full. What was great about this venue as opposed to the Soweto fan park was that it was not an official FIFA fan park but run by the city, therefore it was not bound by the same restrictions. I've moaned before about the sanitisation of the World Cup but here was a venue that embraced a cross-section of South Africa. Local beer, local food and local crafts, the many stalls that displayed such goods created a vibrant ambiance. Pap and vleis, boerewors rolls, makarapas, flags, football shirts and a giant figure made from Coca-Cola crates all added to a South African experience of which I have not had during this tournament.

 Stalls at the viewing area

Looking at the Johannesburg CBD in the distance

If Bongani Khumalo's headed goal in the 20th minute was met by a cheering crowd, Yoann Gourcuff's red card for elbowing Bafana midfielder MacBeth Sibaya in the face and Katlego Mphela's bundled effort in the 37th was cause for jubilation. The improbable had become all too possible. The news came in that Uruguay were leading Mexico 1-0. More cheers. More vuvuzelas. More beer. The halftime run to the bar was chaotic as fans were singing, dancing and blowing their vuvuzelas. No longer was there just a forlorn hope but a belief that Bafana would defy the odds.

 Intensely following the game

The crowd and the Coke man

But it wasn't to be. Mphela hit the crossbar, the side netting and forced a save from the French goalie but the goals Bafana needed were not forthcoming. The French had the audacity to kill the dream with Florent Malouda's 70th minute strike. The atmosphere temporarily flattened but once people had realised that beating the French was an achievement in itself, the party started.

Walking back across the now illuminated Nelson Mandela Bridge, it struck me just how much the tournament is going to miss these crazy Bafana fans. It's just so difficult to explain what it feels like to be in the middle of all this. It's incredible!  

 Back across the bridge

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