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.
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!