Monday, May 31, 2010

A World Cup success story

I regularly moan about the so-called 'benefits' of hosting a tournament such as the World Cup but I shall briefly put that cynicism aside for this really is a success story.

When I first met Alfred Baloyi, he was living in a shack on the southern outskirts of Johannesburg. Well-known within SA football circles for making makarapas since the 1970s. Developed from the need to protect his head from flying beer bottles at football matches, the makarapas are now ornate works of art. I'm lucky to have two Baloyi originals; personalised Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana makarapas.

Baloyi in full gear. His 'guitar' has a cd player inside playing Kaizer Chiefs songs

My Kaizer Chiefs makarapa

Today, life is much different. Having gone into partnership with a sports marketing company, Baloyi now has a production line, employing over 20 people. With the World Cup, production has gone into overdrive as the factory churns out makarapas by the hundreds. No longer living in an informal settlement, Baloyi is an accomplished businessman and celebrity. I only hope that he can spare some time to produce one more orignial for me - an England one!

Going up in the world: His image is plastered all over the factory wall and is visible from the highway

Ready-made makarapas

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Queues and crashes

I thought that it would be a good idea to queue up first thing this morning outside the World Cup ticket office in Sandton, northern Johannesburg, after learning that FIFA were releasing 164,000 tickets in the last ticket phase, in the hope of getting one more match. Having only got home from the Bafana v Columbia match at 1am, my alarm went off at 5:30am (groan) and I was at the ticket office an hour later. Problem was that there were some that had been sleeping there overnight and rumours were flying around that some had even been there since Wednesday evening. There seemed to be multiple queues, and as a good Englishman, I decided to join one and see what happened. It turned out to be the queue to get in the queue!

The first 500 people were assigned numbers and when they ran out, a security guard started entering peoples' names and phone numbers. There were multiple pre-queue queues, all competing to get their names on the list first. People were tired and irritable but there was no violence. While standing in one of the numerous queues, I heard some white, middle class South Africans in designer sunglasses complain that this disorganisation was typical of South Africa, that "nothing in the country works" and that "the whole world is laughing at us". If the World Cup has brought South Africans of all backgrounds together, it has also reinforced the perceptions held by some of the country becoming "the next Zimbabwe".

 Waiting patiently for tickets. Apparently the patience later wore out

By 9am, the guard entered my name at the back of a rather large pad of names. If this was happening around the country, I stood next to no chance of getting any tickets other than the most expensive ones to a New Zealand game (not what I wanted). My stomach reminded me that I hadn't had breakfast and so I gave up.

I later found out four things.

  1. Feefa lied. There were only 90,000 tickets made available.

  2. The system crashed soon after the ticket office opened, creating even more chaos.

  3. Feefa had promised that the system wouldn't crash.

  4. I wouldn't have been allowed to buy tickets at the ticket office anyway. SA residents only!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Crossing the divide

Last night, Bafana Bafana defeated Columbia by two penalties to one in Soccer City, Soweto. Penalties from Orlando Pirates' Teko Modise and Mamelodi Sundowns' Katlego Mphela in either half sandwiched Columbia's spot kick reply. The victory masked similar shortcomings to that of last Monday's game; defensive frailties and a lack of ability to penetrate the opposition's back line, although coach Carlos Alberto Parreira claimed that he was happy with the performance. A packed Soccer City filled with vuvuzelas, kuduzelas, flags, banners and a man eating cabbage (not to be confused with a man-eating cabbage) created a cauldron of noise and colour that could, come the World Cup, push Bafana that extra yard needed to progress beyond the group stage. This was the game that local favourites Steven Pienaar and Benni "10 pies and a bucket of KFC per day" McCarthy finally featured for Bafana in the World Cup warm-up and both players received rapturous cheers when they entered the game in the second half. Yet while Pienaar was instrumental in the flowing move that led to Siphiwe Tshabalala being brought down in the box, Benni cut an anonymous figure in the forward line. Doubts remain whether he will be in shape for the World Cup but without any obvious alternatives in the squad, Parreira may well be forced to go with him.

A busy Soccer City at night

Watching the game, my mind went back to a chilly evening in October 2008 when Bafana took on Malawi in a friendly at Germiston Stadium, Johannesburg. It was a depressing sight to see two thirds of the ground virtually empty for the first twenty minutes until a large group of fans were let in for free. Fast forward to last night and the transformation is amazing. People who have rarely been interested in the exploits of their national football team are now buying tickets in the thousands, wearing the shirt and learning to play the vuvuzela. I'm sceptical whether this will continue into September when Bafana face Niger in an African Nations Cup qualifier but for now, World Cup fever is gripping Jo'burg. You can't walk more than a few paces without seeing a SA flag or a Bafana shirt. A Kaizer Chiefs supporting friend of mine summed it up when he said that even Bulls and Stormers fans were supporting Bafana (a reference to the Super 14 rugby final being held in Soweto for the first time ever, an event that has been heralded by the media as "another step on the path to the affirmation" of a unified Rainbow Nation). South Africans are crossing the racial divide in SA sport, more than I had expected when I left South Africa in August last year. However, before I allow myself a warm fuzzy feeling from all this new found cameraderie, this changes very little in reality. While physical barriers have been temporarily lifted, what does someone barely surviving in an informal settlement have in common with someone living a luxurious lifestyle in Jo'burg's northern suburbs other than some abstract notion that they are all South African? The World Cup is not a panacea for the social ills of the country but it is a valuable building block.

Waving the flag but what does it mean to be South African?

Oh, and by eating the cabbage, it represents the ease in which Bafana will "eat up" the opposition. I've seen people use big cakes to make the same point. I know which one I would choose!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I wouldn't put my money on England winning the World Cup (but I'd like them to prove me wrong)

As I settled into my morning procrastination at my desk, I came across this article about Rio Ferdinand, England and 1966 omens, rolled my eyes and just groaned. I'm getting fed up with so-called experts claiming that it could be England's year (just like 2006 was going to be England's year, and 2002, and 1998, and come to think of it every year). Why do so many Englishmen fall into the trap of believing that we are far better than we actually are? England may have been the birthplace of modern association football and largely responsible for its proliferation around the globe, but the end of English football dominance was marked long ago in 1953 with the 6:3 loss to Hungary and the 7-1 defeat in the reverse fixture six months later. Would England have won the World Cup in 1966 if it had been hosted anywhere else. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, authors of "Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained" don't believe so as playing at home is statistically significantly advantageous. Since 66, England have only managed two semi-finals, one of which was at home in 96 and in 1990 they won only two games in normal time. It's time to realise that while England has arguably the strongest domestic league in the world, the national team is simply a good team with a couple of world class players rather than a world class team. England just aren't in the same class as Brazil or Spain. While I don't necessarily agree with all of Kuper and Szymanski's methods (how can a draw be classed as half a win? A win gets three times as many points), their analysis emphasise that England are consistently good but not great; usually a top ten team. Reaching the quarter finals of the last few major tournaments reflects such a standing and their eighth place in the current world rankings suggest another quarter final exit. I wouldn't say that was a bad result but I guess that there'll be a lot people that won't agree.

For all my moaning, come June 12th when England play the US in their first game, I know that I will be wearing my new England shirt, watching the game in a fan park in Johannesburg, suspending all rational thought and succumbing to the belief that maybe, just maybe, it'll be England's year. I can't help it...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My ears are still ringing...

On Monday night, Bafana Bafana managed a credible 1-1 draw against Bulgaria at Orlando Stadium, Soweto. The same old story yet again prevailed; plenty of possession but generally failing to penetrate the opposition's defence. At one level, a draw against a team 44 places above them in the world rankings is commendable but they will be playing much better teams in the World Cup. Defensive mistakes such as the one that led to Bulgaria's soft equaliser need to be eradicated but there is time for that with the forthcoming friendlies against Columbia, Guatemala and Denmark. Furthermore, the promised inclusion of SA's foreign-based players in the lineup against Columbia should give Bafana a much-needed boost; Everton's Steven Pienaar should feature at some point in the match - an exciting prospect for any Bafana fan.

Unfortunately, traffic chaos yet again marred the experience. Leaving the northern suburbs of Joburg at 5:15pm, I wasn't in the stadium until 7:30pm, a good hour before kick off but that journey should have taken far less time than it did. Having said that, it was a definite improvement on Saturday afternoon at Soccer City (although there were a lot less people this time around). 

Inside Orlando Stadium
Once inside, the atmosphere was buzzing. Say what you want about vuvuzelas but when thousands of them are playing in time in a virtually packed stadium, the effect is impressive. On top of periodic Mexican waves, 40,000 fans jumping up and down in unison made the stadium shake! Mexico, France and Uruguay will be forgiven for feeling intimidated when they play Bafana. Flags, robes, masks, makarapas and even one fan eating a raw cabbage throughout the match makes a Bafana matchday a crazy, vibrant experience. Hearing Shosholoza resonate around the stadium was similarly electrifying. Shosholoza is a song traditionally sung by black migrant labourers but now gets sung at many sporting fixtures.

Shosholoza, shosholoza (Moving fast, moving strong)
Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)
Stimela sphuma eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)
Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)
Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)
Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)
Stimela siphum' eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)

Meet Thulani Ngcobo (above). He's arguably the luckiest man on the planet at the moment, winning tickets to 38 (that's THIRTY EIGHT!!) World Cup matches after winning a competition sponsored by mobile phone network MTN. He's going to attempt to break the record for most World Cup matches attended in one tournament so there'll be a lot of flying. Very, very jealous.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The calabash of dreams

I was fortunate enough to get tickets for the inaugural game at Soccer City in Soweto last Saturday. Designed to resemble a traditional African cooking pot or calabash, the stadium is set to be host to the opening game and the final of the 2010 World Cup. South Africa’s version of the FA Cup, the Nedbank Cup (readers of a Scottish persuasion will find the name amusing) final was contested by two of the smaller teams in the top flight; Bidvest Wits and Amazulu. Over 74,000 fans were there to witness unfancied Wits win their first trophy of coach Roger De Sa’s tenure, winning 3-0 with the last two goals coming in the dying moments of the second half. Yet the game was secondary in many respects. A Wits – Amazulu fixture would usually be lucky to get the attendance of a regular Torquay United home game; the other 72,000 were there to be a part of South African soccer history. As such, there were few Wits and Amazulu shirts on display in the crowd, most preferring to wear the colours of Bafana Bafana, the South African national team.

Outside Soccer City

South African President Jacob Zuma was there to officially open the stadium, which cuts a striking presence on the Sowetan landscape. I was initially sceptical of the design but as I stood in front of it, I couldn’t help but marvel at the unique construction. Two years ago, much of the western media focus was on whether South Africa would be able to finish the stadia in time with Australia and England being touted as possible alternatives but such fears have been proved unfounded. However concerns still remain. As with the organised chaos of the park and ride system implemented during last year’s Confederations Cup, the traffic was gridlocked and the game was delayed for 30 minutes. Some bright spark thought that it was a good idea to hold both the Nedbank Cup final (74,000 people) and the Super 14 rugby semi-final between the Bulls and the Crusaders at Orlando Stadium in Soweto (40,000 people) at the same time on the same day. It was asking for trouble with the traffic cops seemingly unable to prevent drivers driving the wrong way down the roads and causing mayhem. This combined with the usual erratic driving style in this country created a problem that needs urgent attention. Tonight is Bafana v Bulgaria in a World Cup warm up at Orlando Stadium. Hopefully the traffic issue will be better but the evening traffic to Soweto will prove to be another irritating obstacle.

Gridlock outside the stadium
Inside Soccer City

I thought that World Cup adverts in the UK were already at overkill level but this place has gone football loopy. Not only are there the usual adverts calling on South Africans to get behind the team by drinking a certain brand of beer, subscribing to a certain cellphone network or banking with a certain bank, but story lines in TV soaps are dominated by the world cup. In one soap last Friday evening, almost every character was wearing a Bafana shirt and footballs and vuvuzelas were in virtually every shot. In one scene, female characters were discussing which Bafana player they fancied. It would be like Mo Slater in the Queen Vic exclaiming that “she wouldn't mind a piece of John Terry” (urrghh!). Yet while optimism abounds in some quarters, there is also a lot of scepticism over the benefits that the World Cup is alleged to bring.

Friday, May 21, 2010

My dream job?

My first post from South Africa was going to be about the Nedbank Cup final tomorrow, which will be the first game at Soccer City, the venue for the opening game and the final of the 2010 World Cup. However, in my morning procrastination, I discovered that Martyn Rogers has resigned as manager of Tiverton Town. While I wanted a change at the helm, it is still sad to see a manager who has been in charge for over 1,000 games to leave, even though it is probably in the best interests of the club. There have been many highlights for me during this time: the 1999 FA Vase final, having a few/ a lot of beers on the trip up and singing for 90 minutes in a half-empty Wembley; standing behind the opposition goal with the vocal supporters for every home game; the FA Cup 1st round match v Cardiff City and many more. While I think that the club needs change to get itself out of the stagnation that it has been in for the past few seasons, I want to add my thanks to Martyn for giving us some great games, memorable victories and promotions.

The club website is now inviting people to submit their CVs for the positions of 1st Team Manager and Commercial Manager. I once took Tiverton Town into the Premiership on Football Manager. Does that count as relevant experience?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Relegation isn't simple (apparently)

So Tiverton Town still do not know what division they will be playing in next season. I'd thought that finishing in a relegation place meant relegation to the division below but in the apparently complex non-league world of parallel divisions and bankruptcy, the Southern League has still yet to decide whether the Yellows will actually drop down a division or gain a reprieve. Not the best preparation for a new season.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The annual pilgrimage to Old Trafford

Last week I spent a few days with Manchester United supporters from South Africa in Manchester on their annual tour/ pilgrimage to Old Trafford culminating in the last game of the season against Stoke City. I have to confess that ever since I was a small boy at primary school, I've dreamed of going to Old Trafford to watch Manchester United play but we could never afford to get to Manchester, buy the ticket and buy the shirt. I would never describe myself as a United supporter. I don't have any connection with the city; it wasn't until I was 18 that I made it to Manchester. I had posters on my wall; Beckham, Scholes, Jordi Cruyff(!!); a United duvet cover, a couple of videos and the 92/93 FA Cup Final song on cassette but I always consumed them from a distance. Many years on and I finally had the opportunity to do what I always wanted but I realised that while I wanted them to win, I just couldn't get as passionate as the people around me. For me, the game was entertainment; for them it was far more serious. I realised that I am not a United supporter, just a follower of sorts. I want them to win but it really isn't the end of the world if they don't. I'm more concerned about the plight of Tiverton Town...

The Stretford End (obviously)

My shirt!

I've never seen so much money spent on football merchandise

With a group of 20 United fans on a stadium tour of Man City's ground - great banter!

In the Bishops Blaize before the game

View from my seat

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