Monday 28 June 2010

The morning after the long drive after the afternoon before

We set off on the 500km drive from Pretoria with high hopes. By some miracle, Fifa released extra tickets on its website the night before the game and, in a state of elation and disbelief, we'd landed four of them. It couldn't have been a smoother journey and Bloemfontein, bathed in sunshine, was a picture of efficiency and the perfect scene for a football game.

English and Germans spread along the edge of a small lake, with the ground in background, peacefully and respectfully milling before the big occasion. There was only the occasional mention of the war - maybe England fans were nervous. Or not drunk enough: many of the bars had run dry.

Fifa has messed things up again and our four tickets had somehow turned into ten. Great news you'd think, with this media-hyped invasion of Bloem by "thousands" of England and Germany fans we'll make a fortune on the extras. But that never materialised. This is England v Germany in a World Cup in a 45,000-seat stadium, we kept muttering to ourselves in astonishment as we bumped into more and more ticket sellers and only a handful of buyers. The day went downhill from this point.

By the time we'd shifted our last ticket moments before kick-off we'd dropped the price from GBP140 to GBP30. We missed the national anthems and the start of the match. The omens then took a further turn for the worse when we walked to our seats. Every person we squeezed past to reach our spots at the end of our row was German. We looked up at the rest of our section. Germans. They were courteous enough, even admitting without seeing a replay that THAT shot had clearly crossed the line, but it wasn't the atmosphere we'd imagined.


On the five-hour drive back to Joburg disbelief gave way to anger which gave way to sadness. England are not very good at football.

There's no doubt that some big players let themselves down and Capello was found short of a plan B (why was Gerrard never tried in the striker support role and Joe Cole never given a proper run-out on the left? Why did Heskey, and not Crouch, come on when we were desperate for goals yesterday?). But the bigger problems relate to the Premier League. Billionaire owners interested in instant success. Willing to pay more and more on wages to attract the world's brightest stars.

To assess what impact this is having, let's look at how many top English players Man. United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have produced in the last five years? Uhm, none. It's like having an ageing population and a stagnant birth rate. I'm all for dropping Gerrard, Lampard, Terry and co. for the next international but who will replace them? Lee Cattermole? Fabrice Muamba? Come on.

Germany, meanwhile, with its fan-owned clubs, reasonable ticket prices and strong academies seem to have the right balance. I don't think this Germany team is that much more than a good unit, but young hungry players are coming through and there's genuine competition for the Bundesliga's top spots.

The new regulations imposing a minimum number of home-grown players will help. But we also need owners concerned in the long-term future of their clubs. It's not a money-making business, everyone knows that, but it shouldn't be a badge of honour either. Does the FA acknowledge this in its fit-and-proper-persons test? Of course not.

England will probably go back to a Keeganesque Mr Motivator manager. Someone like Harry Redknpapp would definitely give players confidence and they might feel more comfortable in their skin when they have the Three Lions on the chest.

But surely it's also time for a look in the mirror. One which was bandied about by every expert when England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 but was quickly forgotten with Capello's early success. It's time to tear down the wallpaper, see how deep the cracks are and knock down the house and start again if the foundations are too wobbly.

Monday 21 June 2010

Pieter's world

Famous South African artist Pieter van der Westhuizen said he knew at the age of four that this life was not for him. Born, as he said, "between the great drought, the depression and the Second World War" offered him little hope. Becoming an orphan at a young age did not help. His solution? "I began creating another world for myself - in pictures".

Until his death two years ago, he exhibited widely across the world and also became well known as an academic and author. He studied art at home and in Belgium and refined his knowledge of block-printing in Japan.

He painted landscapes, portraits, still-life figures and abstracts and was well known for works in pastel, oil, watercolour, pencil and various graphic media. Techniques picked up through years of studies and a man obviously obsessed with always discovering new methods.

It's that variety that strikes you when you go to see his work in the beautiful village of Philadelphia, a 20mn drive into the countryside outside Cape Town.

Currently displayed in the beautiful de Malle Meul, there are hundreds of his paintings, with sculptures he made dotted around the gardens. An almost childlike view on the world emerges through his representation of people and animals. He said he often paints those two subjects because they are subjects he sees the most, and two subjects he sees as the most beautiful. This is not an art blog so I'm not qualified to give an in-depth analysis but his portraits of women and minimalist landcapes are superb. Simple but so colourful amd emotive.

The venue, an old mill, offers the perfect natural backdrop. A wine tasting session afterwards offers an opportunity to reflect on what you've seen. We were lucky enough to also visit his old studio and the house where he lived. It's easy to understand why he was one of the most popular contemporary artists in South Africa.

Flagging it up

When did England fans start their love affair with the cross of St George flag? Hazy memories of the 1990 World Cup suggest the Union Jack was more in vogue then. The red cross has gained in popularity despite the links with red wing political groups. Euro 1996 seemed to be a turning point, and since then more and more fans opt for a flag to mark their presence when following abroad.

This is not restricted to stadiums, anywhere will do. Usually within walking distance of a public square and/or a licensed premise. Or on your house if you're the prime mininster. Small flags on cars have multiplied over the last three major tournaments, despite the supposed safety risks, and in South Africa people also have flags to cover their wing mirrors.

Flags we've seen in SA proudly declare 'no surrender', 'we still believe' or simply 'on tour'. The words usually run across the middle but letters populate the full surface for those more chatty. Club loyalties are not forgotten, with emblems sometimes finding their way into one of the corners.

There are either more England fans from the North or more England fans from the North have flags. During the England - Algeria game, Green Point Stadium was adorned with St George, forming two huge circles of flags all round the ground.

Other countries are either not as keen or go for a different approach. The Brazil matches we went to were flag free, the French only dabbled with the odd tricolores. South Korea unrolled (then quickly and neatly re-rolled) two huge flags, both covering a full tier, and then each fan had their own small one. They were even giving them out.

Argentina definitely seem to have caught bug. Their game against South Korea saw flags aplenty, many more elaborate than we'd seen before. They are usually longer and flatter than the St George variety, better fitting the sections between the tiers of the stadium. They were also more political judging by the amount confiscated by the police. Someone can't have liked our huge England flag as it was stolen before we had time to get to it at the end of the game.


A funny sight on approaching grounds here: a man selling vuvuzelas (and their 140-decibel blasts) stood within a few metres of a man selling ear plugs.

Thursday 17 June 2010

World Cup record

Was the game between Brazil and North Korea the coldest ever in World Cup history? Maybe it's because mentally I'm still in UK June mode, but I've never been as cold at a match before. And with World Cups usually during the summer, this had to be a first.

We got a lift on a private bus from some people we met at a hotel and they kept us well watered with sherry, red wine and beer. But even the alcohol blanket wasn't enough. I didn't even want a snack at half time but I was happier in a queue than I've ever been before, robbing people's body heat left right and centre.


Radio football commentary in South Africa is different. We've been tuned into Radio 2000 on our long car journeys and the quirky comments, mispronounced names and eccentric accents have made the traffic more bearable.

The funniest moments come when there is a goal-scoring chance. The name of the player is shouted out with the last syllable stretched and stretched. In England this would mean a goal. Here, it is followed by a silence, more silence, then a description of what happened. "Just wide", "just over", "just stopped" , "just blocked". A shot has not gone well wide in the five games we've listened to so far.

The Magic Bus

There's a guidebook giving advice to fans on where and where not to go in Johannesburg. I haven't read it. Today we took a walk down a street which would have probably been in the no-go category, especially at night. But it was quite good fun, especially when - with not a taxi in sight - we hailed down a public bus.

'Are you going to Sandton?'


'Where are the buses to Sandton?'

'Over there I think... Hang on....How many of you?'


'Hop on, I'll drop everyone else off first and then take you there.'

The adventure took us on a bouncy journey from the City - a poor area in central Joburg - to one of the richest: the shopping district of Sandton. Some felt safe ('There's six of us, relax'), some didn't ('I've been mugged in Rio and Lisbon'), but it felt real. Seeing the parts of town that the World Cup hasn't cleaned up. We probably went 20mn out of the driver's way, and he even stopped for a pee break. He charged us R100.

Sandton couldn't be more different. In the shadow of Fifa's headquarters sits a square surrounded by chain restaurants and expensive bars on one side and a glitzy maze-like shopping centre on the other. Oh, and it had a 3D viewing dome in the middle if you fancy watching matches with funny glasses on. We had a meat feast in a grill house. They charged us R1,800.

England expects

Travelling to football is not something we're strangers to but the three-hour drive from Johannesburg to Rustenburg on Saturday was something else. First the townships, then the sparse and dry countryside, then the mountains lit by a fiery fading orange sun.

By the time the stadium appeared amongst a cold smoky mist it didn't seem real. Is that why the England fans were so quiet, not quite believing that they were watching a World Cup game in a stadium built by an African tribe? Or could they not be bothered to compete with the vuvuzelas? Or is there a belief that the team must impress first before getting the full backing of the fans who have paid so much to get here?

The goal helped but almost immediately afterwards a nervousness settled in. There should be more of a party in Cape Town, with a layout more familiar to European football fans. The distance between the station and the stadium is manageable by foot and the walk takes you past plenty of bars. Plus the stadium is much bigger. There's rumours it could snow though - how would England fans react to that?

Sunday 13 June 2010

Shosholoza and vuvuzelas

Don't throw a disapproving glance at a man sat behind you in a stadium with a vuvuzela. He'll blow it with more zest and closer to your head for the remainder of the game. They're all at it, the South Africans. Horny bunch. When they're not blowing them they're hoisting them above their heads as they dance.

And dance they did. We'd felt the World Cup glow since landing, it was the opening day and everyone was so proud - South African flags in cars, on cars, out of cars, on the back of car mirrors. But then we saw them dance. And suddenly you've taken a great hit of World Cup fever and you're buzzing. It's bitten you hard. You want games you want chants you want laughs, you want football. Football, football, football.

The World Cup started not when we went to our first game but when we squeezed into a heaving bar of mainly black locals singing shosholoza and moving their bodies in unison. Like a slow wave moving towards the small TV screen, then back, then forwards again. Arms imitating the movement in the air.

And then it stopped (for a few minutes). Mexico had dared equalise, sending a chilling, rude reminder that this was not just the day Africa greeted the world, it was also the beginning of a month long battle of the biggest stars in the biggest sport playing on the biggest stage.

And so it begins.


Football is not the top sport for White South Africa. Our train into the centre of Cape Town from the wealthy Century City, with its brick business park and shiny shopping centres, was packed even though their team was battling it out in the tournament's opener as we sat there.

Home team is a loose definition. Yes they want Bafana Bafana to win, but they have no hesitation in dressing up in French gear despite the bleu-blanc-rouge being their biggest Group A rival. People seemed keen to talk about rugby, and they won't be backing the opposition when the two teams meet today.

But it's not just France they support, it's Italy, Spain, Brazil and, of course, England. The St George's flag is everywhere. The Premier League's colonisation of the world's football fans has turned this part of the world into fans of Rooney and co. Do they know what they're letting themselves in for?