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

The World Cup will miss Bafana, but they're not out yet

Time to abandon all attempts at rationality again as Bafana take on France this afternoon in Bloemfontein. Even if Bafana do managed to stuff the hapless French by a load of goals, they still need Mexico and Uruguay not to draw. It's a tough ask. Unlike in the build-up to the opening game, there is no longer an atmosphere of belief but one of desperate hope. The vuvuzelas are back but with a whimper, not a bang. No-one dares utter what they are secretly thinking, that Bafana have scant chance to progress. It's splashed all over the front of the papers; The Star begs Bafana to "Storm the Bastille". Archbishop Desmond Tutu is praying for a "Bafana miracle". TV and radio are telling us to get behind the team once more. Actually, there is one group that has dissented. The ANC's Youth League has criticised the performances of captain Aaron Mokoena, stating, "We believe captain Aaron Mokoena sometimes makes costly mistakes, which the team and the country cannot afford in a do-or-die soccer encounter". It may well be true but they're not doing themselves any favours by saying this before the game.

If, and it's an enormous if, it all goes to plan, there will be partying in the streets of Jo'burg tonight! If not... well, I'm just not going to think about that possibility. I will be in the thick of it once again at the fan park in Johannesburg CBD with my Bafana shirt and vuvuzela, screaming myself hoarse until the end. For an Englishman, I'm doing a good impression of being South African...

Monday, June 21, 2010

I wouldn't support Italy just because they're European. Actually I wouldn't support Italy.

This is Africa's World Cup or so we're told. Ever since South Africa won the bid to host the World Cup, various sporting and political elites have said that this tournament is for all Africa. This idea of a continental identity elsewhere would seem bizarre at best. Imagine the absurdity if England won the rights to host the 2018 edition and declare that it was a tournament for all Europe! Brazil haven't claimed that 2014 is South America's turn, Asia is too vast for any coherent idea of what it is to be "Asian" and if Australia hosted 2022, I doubt there would be much trans-Tasman bonhomie.

If this really is Africa's World Cup, the African teams seem to have missed this. Cameroon are out, South Africa need to score a bucket-full of goals, Cote d'Ivoire would have to score even more, Nigeria and Algeria are rooted to the bottom of their respective groups and Ghana failed to punish 10-man Australia. Yet, more significantly, many South Africans supporting the other African teams because they are African. As the only non-African in the room watching the Cameroon - Denmark game, I deliberately cheered for the Danes to annoy everyone else. They were jubilant when Eto'o put Cameroon ahead but clearly irritated with my chants of "Denmark! Denmark! Denmark!" and the two Danish goals. TV and radio commentators argue that fans are being let down by the African teams. As an Englishman, it's a strange concept. I wouldn't feel let down if Italy or France got eliminated. I'd positively revel in it! Maybe people on other continents have different views on this? It was the same during my MSc research in Ghana and Togo in 2006. Supporters that I spoke to in the respective capitals wanted Angola, Cote d'Ivoire and Tunisia to win if their teams couldn't.

At the Egypt - Italy Confederations Cup at Ellis Park last year, I was cheering for the Egyptians and they duly won. The vast majority of the crowd at that game were South Africans. While this is admittedly a massive generalisation, almost all the white South Africans were supporting Italy while non-white South Africans generally chose Egypt. Catching up with some of the hardcore Bafana fans after the game, they assumed that I was supporting Italy. They were shocked when they found out that we were supporting the same team. "But you're from Europe!" This brings up questions of what it means to be African and who identifies themselves as such. However, this is a blog not an essay...

My World Cup matches

Recently acquiring quarter final tickets for Ellis Park bring my World Cup matches to a respectable five:
  • England v USA, Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, Rustenburg
  • Australia v Serbia, Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
  • Round of 16, Soccer City, Johannesburg - looks like Argentina v Mexico
  • Quarter Final, Soccer City - possibly England v Uruguay
  • Quarter Final, Ellis Park, Johannesburg - perhaps Japan v Portugal
Happy days...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Learn to love the vuvuzela

Here's the link to my opinion piece on vuvuzelas in Friday's Edinburgh Evening News but the cheesy title was nothing to do with me!

Had numerous beers last night in an attempt to make England v Algeria more interesting but failed. An afternoon of food and football awaits...

Friday, June 18, 2010

No pap?? But this is South Africa!

Mexico's 2-0 win over France last meant that while it is mathematically still possible for Bafana to qualify for the knockout stages, it would require Bafana to score a glut of goals and hope that Mexico and Uruguay do not play for a draw (click here for the permutations). While President Jacob Zuma has said that he will be wearing his Bafana shirt today in support of the boys, the cracks are not only showing but gaping. Few people now believe that Bafana can still progress but they are clinging to a tattered hope.

Scouring the papers this morning, I came across a great, if somewhat cynical opinion piece in the Mail & Guardian by the South African film director Zola Maseko dispelling the myth that the World Cup (and the 1995 Rugby World Cup) has unified the Rainbow Nation. Of the 95 cup win, he writes: "That World Cup victory peddled the mischievous lie that centuries of racial hatred, economic exploitation and racial discrimination had been miraculously wiped away, in one fell swoop." He wants to see something more substantial than some simple flag-waving patriotism, arguing that "Wouldn't it be something to see 80,000 white South Africans go into the township and plant some trees? Or just sit and drink with their countrymen. No rugby. Just sharing, listening and understanding." I'm not sure how tree-planting would help nation-building but this dream will remain just that. There'll be a lot more of this kind of commentary in the months to come.

Last night while watching the the above game, my host asked me how much vendors were selling pap (a staple food for many black South Africans made from ground maize) for in the stadiums. Pap and steak or chicken is a common sight at South Africa domestic football matches cooked and sold by a plethora of vendors around the stadium. It is also one of my highlights of the football experience here. I replied that there wasn't any pap in the World Cup stadiums.

"But this is South Africa! They must have pap there! Why is there no pap?"

"Because only sponsors' products are allowed. There's just the American beer Budweiser, no South African beer, not even Castle. All the soft drinks are Coca-Cola products. Even the coffee. They serve bland hotdogs and burgers. No pap, not even boerewors."

"But this could be Brazil or Germany or anywhere!"

And he's spot on. The sterile corporatisation imposed by football's governing body to satisfy their sponsors is robbing the match day experience of its South African flavour. Informal food vendors are not allowed within a certain radius of the stadium, which restricts the tourists' opportunity to sample this food and the vendors' ability to sell as my host had found out to his detriment. Thankfully the vuvuzela is not to be banned otherwise the World Cup really could be anywhere.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bafana fever is contagious but I think there's a cure

When England played South Africa in the group stage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and lost 36-0, I was the only one in the bar with an England shirt on. I got some abuse, a lot of banter and some free drinks in sympathy. A year later, I was back in the same bar with the same shirt on as England lost 6-42 to the Springboks. Cue more abuse and banter (not sure if I had drinks bought for me that time). In both cases, the bar was packed and the atmosphere was raucous. The vast majority of the clientelle in both cases were white, middle class South Africans. In between these games, Bafana embarked on their disasterous 2008 African Nations campaign, getting knocked out in the first round. I watched a couple of these at the same bar but both times it was virtually empty. Only myself, a couple of waiters and a car guard sat and watched the games. Fiercely patriotic for the rugby, ambivelent at best when it came to the football. This neatly fitted into the stereotypes of sport in the country; rugby for white, middle class men (predominantly Afrikaans) and football for the black working class.

Although I had initially planned to watch the Uruguay game at the fan park in the centre of Jo'burg, I chickened out due to the sub-zero temperatures so I decided to return to this bar to see if Bafana fever had infected even the most rugby-hardened areas. It had. It wasn't packed like for the rugby but it was still a lot busier than those January evenings two years ago. More of a mixed crowd than I found for the rugby, nobody sang the national anthem but there were a couple of guys blowing vuvuzelas inside, which grated on me. It was a more low-key affair than what I experienced in Soweto but the fans still got behind their team. Howls of disbelief met the penalty decision but once the game was over, the atmosphere was flat. Whether people will be back for the Bafana v France game remains to be seen but when the Tri Nations rugby returns next month, that place will be packed once more with Springbok fans. Business as usual.

The vuvuzelas have all but stopped, as if in mourning. The hype of Bafana has been shown to be just that. Many are bitter towards the referee but there is much feeling that Bafana have let people down considering that they promised so much. If the talk yesterday was that of Bafana uniting the nation, the drubbing has disappointed a nation. Bafana fever will disappear as quickly as it emerged.


The front and back pages of The Star and the Sowetan this morning describing the disappointment of the night before

Bafana v Uruguay - an armchair critic's perspective

Bafana promised much this World Cup. From claims of making the nation proud to declaring that they could win the tournament, the squad carried an air of confidence and belief and many South Africans duly followed. Last night's 3-0 drubbing at the hands of an above average Uruguay restored some perspective as to where South Africa really are in the echelons of world football. A bright enough start by Bafana was cancelled out by Diego Forlan's vicious strike from outside the 18-yard area. Goalkeeper Khune was partly to blame as the ball sailed above his head. Maybe he was briefly unsighted by his defence, who allowed Forlan so much time and space to line up the shot. The confidence and enthusiasm shown by Bafana in the opening match was sadly lacking in the second game. Even at 1-0, Uruguay looked assured in possession as Bafana showed little attacking intent and an inability to string a row of passes together. The goal-scoring hero from the last game, Siphiwe Tshabalala, offered little apart from a few wild shots and Modise on the right had another ineffective performance. Worryingly still, playmaker Steven Pienaar looked a shadow of his former self and captain Aaron Mokoena continued his run of defensive mistakes. While there were legitimate claims for offside (decide for yourself) , there can be few complaints about the referee's decision to award the penalty and send Khune off. Despite the Uruguayan number 9 looking more at home in a swimming pool than on the football pitch such was his inclination to dive around for the entire game, Khune did get the man not the ball and denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity. His defence however had left him high and dry. A third for Uruguay at the end was just the final hammer blow in an inept Bafana performance.

With Dikagcoi now suspended for the France game, maybe now Mokoena will get moved into his preferred defensive midfield role with Matthew Booth in at centre back? Doubt it though.

Let's hope that France and Mexico play to a draw tonight and then Bafana to beat France while Uruguay beat Mexico in the last group games. On last night's perfomance, that is just cloud cuckoo land.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Uruguay, Youth Day and sub-zero temperatures

Tonight Bafana Bafana take on Uruguay in their second Group A clash. With all the teams in the group on one point and me being unable to resist football cliches, there will be all to play for. Coach Parreira has said that he will take risks in the team selection and tactics in order to progress into the second round but has not specified what. 

What is more significant is the day that this match is being played on. June 16th is Youth Day, one of the biggest public holidays in South Africa. It commemorates the Soweto Uprising on the same day in 1976 when over 20,000 students in the now-famous township protested against the use of Afrikaans (seen as the language of the oppressor) as the medium of instruction in schools. Clashes with police and the ensuing violence during the following few weeks saw approximately 700 hundred people killed. The image of a mortally wounded young boy named Hector Pietersen being carried in the arms of another man. became internationally recognisable as  the world woke up to the horrors of apartheid. The uprising is often heralded as the catalyst for change that set South Africa on the road to democracy. Star player Steven Pienaar has said that Bafana squad feel "the weight of responsibility resting on them". If Bafana, who are ranked 83rd in the world can beat 16th-ranked Uruguay, there will be massive celebrations nationwide, even with temperatures expected to hit -3C!

It can't be a coincidence that Bafana are playing today. As hosts, they were automatically team A1 in the draw. Perhaps it was set up like this by the organising committee in an attempt to foster national pride? Or maybe I'm just being cynical.

I had planned on heading down to the public viewing area in central Johannesburg this evening for the game but with such temperatures, I'm not sure that I'm willing to freeze for the sake of football and I doubt many South Africans who think that 15C is cold will think differently!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Drunken mutterings on talkSPORT

I woke up on Saturday morning to a text message from a friend of mine seemingly discussing England's team selection for the USA match. Imagine my surprise when I found out that he had a spare ticket and was giving it to me!!
 My first England ticket

On the approach to Rustenburg, traffic ground to a virtual standstill still with many miles to go to the stadium. Contending with idiots who were driving up the emergency lane in a stupid attempt to get their car a couple of hundred metres further, progress was extremely slow. We had left hours before kickoff but as the clock ticked past the minutes and then the hours, the horrifying thought that we would miss some of the game dawned on us. Groups of traffic cops talking to each other in the middle of the road and then directing us in a different direction to what the signs said didn't help matters. So many people had parked on the roadside up to the stadium rather than find their car park in a desperate bid to get inside on time. We managed to find a car park (not ours though) and dashed inside, dodging already drunken fans. Sat in my seat with 10 minutes to spare!

 The legend who gave me my ticket!!!

This was my first England football game and I was stunned to see the Royal Bafokeng Stadium covered in England flags. The media here has constantly told us that the US has the largest contingent of supporters that have come over for the World Cup but this really wasn't evident that night. As the national anthem struck up I was expecting a massive swell of song but it didn't materialise. I then realised that many of the England fans here must have been South Africans, who didn't know the words. Throughout the game, I could hear the section of hardcore England supporters singing and chanting. Amusing at first, hearing Come on England! on a loop for 5 minutes became more annoying than having a vuvuzela blown in your ear.

 Spot the American fans...

The stadium/ I went crazy when Steven Gerrard scored the opener. England had the ascendancy for much of the first half, although the usual defensive frailties were exposed by the pace of the American attack. The Americans created some chances and Jozy Altidore really should have scored but thankfully he chose to head wide. And then came the howler. My seat was perfectly placed to witness this calamity in all its glory; on the goal line, front row of the second tier. It was as if it was in slow motion, Rob Green's arms scrambling to get hold of the ball. B@!!ocks! The silver lining was that a friend had bought 12 beers for four of us; I had five in quick succession. England had the best of the second half but failed to convert chances, Emile Heskey the major culprit.

 My personal beer supply

In hindsight, the result was nothing more than a minor setback and by this point there were plenty of drunken England fans who just wanted to party. As we were leaving the stand, a talkSPORT journo came up to my very confused friend (he wore and USA jacket with an England scarf). I walked up and declared:

"You do know he's not American?"

"Of course I do" and he turned his big fluffy microphone to me.

"So are you just here for the World Cup?"

Instead of just answering yes, I rambled on about how I used to live in Johannesburg. He eventually got me to just say yes. I don't remember exactly what he asked me now; it all disappeared in a drunken haze. Something about how I felt about the result (it's not the end of the world) and the turning point in the game (Green's howler). I also muttered something about Emile Heskey playing like a donkey. Through all this, I was fascinated how this guy seemed to be engrossed in what I was saying, vigorously nodding his head like a dog wags his tail.

Drunk and delusional England fans on holiday

If the traffic was bad getting in, it was a disaster trying to get out. As a host venue in last year's Confederations Cup, the park and ride system ran fairly smoothly and was much better than Johannesburg. Maybe they rested on their laurels as chaos ensued. Limited/ conflicting signage, police telling us to head off in the wrong direction only for us to get stuck in traffic for ages. Crowds of people lined the streets as they searched for their buses. The tourists were completely clueless as to what was going on, getting in queues in the hope that they would eventually lead to their bus. They're going to have to realise soon that not everyone around the world has the same predilection towards queuing that the English have! The priceless moment was when one England fan said that he was "waiting for the white van" to take him back where he came from. He had no clue where that was and clearly did not grasp that all the minibus taxis looked the same. I guess that he was one of the fans that were still stuck at the stadium at 2am...

I ran down the stand to get a picture with Captain America!

Paul - you are a legend for giving me that ticket!! I know that you claimed you were neutral but I saw how you reacted when Heskey shot straight at Howard!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

BBC Radio Scotland interview

Here's my brief interview on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday morning about the 2010 World Cup in South Africa:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00sn977

1 hour, 45 minutes and 42 seconds in. Thanks to my cousin Ben Mabley for finding it for me.

An experience like no other

The morning after, when things have quietened down a little, I look back on what I experienced with feelings of amazement and excitement. It started in central Jo'burg at the Noord Street taxi rank. Not the safest/ nicest of areas but a bustling hub of commuters, market stalls and shoppers. Flags and Bafana shirts were everywhere with the sound of vuvuzelas piercing the commotion of everyday life. The locals seemed confused to see 2 abelungu (white guys) walking around there, even more so when they saw my Booth shirt combined with my new Booth hairstyle (i.e. completely shaved). Meeting up with one of my Kaizer Chiefs supporter friends, Dan, Mzolo and myself used the new bus system to head to Soweto. Akin to the London Underground at rush hour, we were packed into the bus along with a mixture of daily commuters and football tourists. There was even a Mexican fan wearing a kilt! The atmosphere in the bus came alive when a few of us at the back started to sing Shosholoza and soon half the bus burst into song!

 The crowd at the Soweto Fan Fest just before the game

Walking from the bus stop to the fan park, we saw the side of Soweto that many forget or are unaware of. It's not just shacks and poverty but in places, a suburban lifestyle. After arriving at the fan park early to avoid the traffic, we joined in a game of football but without goals. Soweto has rarely seen so many white people there, although the first bunch in Bafana shirts that we met were actually American! The park really came alive after the opening ceremony when K'naan came on stage and sang Wavin' Flag, one of the World Cup songs. Thousands of people singing along to this raised the party to fever pitch, everyone waving their flags and vuvuzelas in unison.

 Getting into the party mood

The performance of Bafana in the first half dented the enthusiasm of the crowd. Thwala had a nightmare at left-back, his lack of pace brutally exposed. The central midfield pairing of Dikagcoi and Letsholonyane were clearly nervous while Teko Modise on the right side of midfield was having a howler (yet again) as he constantly lost possession. Towards the end of the first half, Bafana clawed themselves back into it, creating a couple of half-chances but had to thank a combination of Mexican profligacy in front of goal and a string of fine saves from Itemelung Khune for going into the break at 0-0.

 
The big screen

It was in the 55th minute that changed everything. Dikagcoi's brilliant long diagonal though-ball release Siphiwe Tshabalala on the left, whose pinpoint top-right corner finish was exquisite. Soweto just could not believe it. Not only had Bafana ahead but they had done it with such style. The crowd simply erupted in jubilation. I jumped in the air, shouting and screaming along with thousands of others. People were hugging strangers in celebration. It's these moments that are difficult to describe. Such a feeling of mass euphoria has to be experienced to understand. It's even more confusing that I felt like this considering that I'm not even South African. I think I've got so much emotionally invested in this World Cup that sometimes I'm not sure whether I would rather England or South Africa to win the tournament. I would be delighted with either.

 Watching intensly as Bafana search for the winner

Modise continued to be wasteful as Bafana searched for a second goal. But if the 55th minute was a cause for jubilation, the 79th minute flattened the mood in Soweto. Calamitous defending allowed Rafael Marquez time and space to drill the ball past Khune at the near post. Stunned, silent, horrified that this could happen. This had destroyed the dream start that Bafana had craved. If that wasn't bad enough, Katlego Mphela's effort against the post at the end tormented us; the swell of the crowd as we all thought it was going in turned to agony and disbelief as it rebounded away. Many would have taken 1-1 before the game but we were left feeling that it could have been so much more. There would have been partying on the streets of Soweto if they had won; dancing, a few beers at some taverns and then some more dancing. As it was, the celebrations were muted although fans were encouraged by the second half performance.

Proudly South African

As we were leaving the fan park, someone shouted BOOOOOOTH and before I knew it, I was surrounded by Bafana fans and an Asian news crew (not sure what country they were from but Ben, you might see me on TV in Japan!). A big, fluffy microphone shoved in my face, I was asked how I felt (deflated) and how Bafana would fare in their next two games (I optimistically said four points from those games). The France v Uruguay match offers much hope that Bafana could do just that.

 Dancing at half time

But before I lose my senses completely, a comment made to me by a friend as the TV was panning in on the diversity of the crowd at Soccer City restored a certain level of rationality when he said "I wish to see the whole nation AFTER the World Cup". While the feelings of yesterday were incredible, some are under no illusion that the World Cup really changes anything.

I've got a sore throat and cracked lips from too much shouting and vuvuzela playing!

Friday, June 11, 2010

IT IS FINALLY HERE!

Woken up at 5:45am by the sound of vuvuzelas outside my house, Johannesburg is already abuzz hours before the World Cup opening ceremony. Driving through the city centre this morning, people everywhere were wearing Bafana shirts, waving flags and blowing vuvuzelas. The atmosphere is incredible!

I'm off to Soweto to soak up the atmosphere but I've just enough time to show you the front pages of The Star and Sowetan and also my new BOOOOOOOOOOOOTH shirt!

I've got my vuvuzela ready.

Follow my tweets (if Twitter can actually sort out their issues and let me text my updates) from Soweto throughout the day at http://twitter.com/MarcFletcher1 or http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/series/world-cup-fans-network

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A false celebrity...

Since I've been back in South Africa, not a day goes past without someone pointing out to me that I look like Bafana defender Matthew Booth. I don't think so but you decide...

                                Me                                                 Matthew Booth

I've had people come up to me at work, at home or in the street wanting my autograph or a photo with me. Sometimes they just shout BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOTH!! I thought people were just joking at first but now I'm not so sure. Just yesterday lunchtime, two women started screaming (unfortunately I'm not exaggerating) and attracting the attention of passersby when all I wanted to do was eat my lunch. Even though I had showed them my driving license to prove that I wasn't him. they weren't convinced. Fortunately they quietened down once they took a couple of photographs.

Apparently I'm shorter than I appear on TV...

So now I've embraced it and have gotten my Bafana shirt printed with "Booth 14". I shall be wearing it at the fan park in Soweto for the opening game tomorrow. There might be a few confused locals!

IT'S ALMOST HERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Waving the flag and the black market

It seem that all the media in South Africa is currently gushing about yesterday's Bafana bus parade in Sandton. Euphoria, unity/ united and sisonke (Zulu for togetherness I believe) were the words of choice, with my favourite phrase being "basked in the glory of a loving nation". Positively nauseating. It wasn't just in Sandton that the craziness was happening. Driving around Johannesburg between 12 and 2, Bafana fans seemed to be on every street corner (and in the middle of the roads), cheering, dancing and blowing their vuvuzelas in support of the national team. This event showed Johannesburg in a positive light; a place of celebration and carnival rather than the face of crime and poverty. But almost anyone can wear the national colours and wave the national flag. If this is all it takes currently to be a good South African, this national unity is a weak and fragile one. Once the World Cup is over and the flags are put away, what is left? Just a thought.

I never made it to Sandton as I got delayed but this turned out to be a stroke of luck as I gained a window into the black market of replica football shirts.  At a stall selling football merchandise, numerous people came up asking for Bafana shirts. It quickly became apparent that they were after the cheap, pirated copies from Thailand rather than the real thing (made in another south-east Asian country no doubt). Charging R400 each for what he had left, this infuriated one Afrikaans women who unleashed a torrent of abuse towards the stallkeeper (none of which I should print!). Afterwards he described to me how he was in fear of being raided by the police for pirated goods so he mostly kept authentic merchandise on display. However he knew how to source the copies, explaining that they had steadily risen in price because of the success of such raids. For all the success, these fakes are everywhere on the streets. Even some companies are buying these in bulk for their clients and many cannot tell the difference. The two policemen that came up to the stall just for a chat with the stallkeeper were oblivious to the fake Bafana shirts on display, even as they picked them up and considered buying them. Or maybe they did know and had come to an "arrangement"? I couldn't find out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bafana's public training session and the media circus

The email accompanying the ticket for the public training session stated that we had to be in our seats by 2:30pm so I got there thirty minutes early to find a queue of only 20 or so people. I thought that it was a poor turnout considering that the whole country seemed to have been hit by Bafana fever but, no worries, the masses will turn up. Just give it time. Fans trickled in but there was no great rush. 2:30 came and went and there was only three hundred or so in the one stand. It wasn't well advertised (I heard about it by chance) and it was during work hours so perhaps Bafana fans can be forgiven. By 3pm, there were a few more fans but people were growing impatient at the non-arrival of the Bafana squad. The corner flags were then put into place. Surely this meant that they were almost here? Nope. They forced us to wait for another hour before they decided to grace us with their presence.

Meanwhile, what did arrive was the media circus. All of a sudden, camera crews and journalists were in the stand, quick as a rash. On the prowl for a story, an interesting story or just any story, their ears pricked up everytime they heard a vuvuzela. Like moths to light, they descended on the individual to capture the 'local flavour' of South African football supporters, cameras and microphones shoved in his face. He lapped it up but there was fan envy. Another vuvuzela was blown and in meerkat-like fashion, the journalists poked their heads up to see where this fascinating sound was coming from. You could see it in their faces; "This person intrigues us. We must interview him".

Out came the run-of-the-mill questions, which were met with the same, tired answers:

"So who do you think will win the World Cup?"

"Bafana Bafana!!" This was followed by repeated blasts on vuvuzelas while the journalist vigorously nodded his head in agreement; a big smile appeared on his face as if he'd just discovered some major news story.

"What does it mean to you as a South African to have the World Cup in your country?"

"It means everything to us and to the whole of Africa (although I wonder if people in north Africa feel the same way)! WE ARE READY!!! And then the cacophony of vuvuzelas kicked back in. What did they expect that he was going to say? "This tournament has taken much needed money away from those who need it most. The World Cup is just a symbol of the greed of the rich man"? Not in that crowd.

Bafana sauntered onto the pitch at 4pm, clearly oblivious that they had kept us waiting. The crowd went briefly went wild, especially when Matthew Booth came on to shouts of BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOTH! After a few minutes, the media circus resumed. Cameramen were getting groups of fans organised to sing and dance at exactly the right moment after an interview but were getting visibly frustrated as they found that they could not reign in the celebratory mood of the fans.

I had sat back and just took this all in. A Brazilian journo came up the guy next to me and asked similar facile questions. He then turned to me in the hope of doing the same but decided not to once he realise that I wasn't a local. So my 'dreams' of being on Brazilian television were dashed.

Through all this Bafana were training but it just didn't seem as interesting.

Many, many, many, many, many thanks to Dan Hammett for getting me that ticket!

I've got a golden ticket...

Journalists on the prowl for a 'story'

Midfielder MacBeth Sibaya

Booooooooooooooooth!!!

Bafana pretending to train

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