The three amigos landed in Johannesburg, amidst the familiar fusion of exhaustion and anticipation. Mick had travelled to South Africa with what can only be described as a fringe, Danny had come with a desire to talk to every fan, man, woman, child and animal he encountered, and I had entered with a vague itinerary, sketched out and shaped by the in-flight perusal of the guide book purchased en route to the airport. From the moment we stepped off the plane the sun shone with relentless consistency, and the enthusiasm on the streets was palpable. Early evidence suggested that the gracious hosts were even more excited than their visitors, the (in)famous Vuvuzela serving as the definitive mode of expression.
13th June - our first day in South Africa - signalled a painful farewell to my twenties. I was keen to commiserate with football and beer, and the Ghana v Serbia match in nearby Pretoria provided the likeliest opportunity. The only congratulations were due to FIFA, both for sanctioning the sale of ale in World Cup stadia, and for inadvertently shaping the black market by offering the cheapest tickets to South Africans. Wedged into an embarrassingly undersized hire car, we headed north in search of tickets. After a futile trip to the nonsensical centrally located ticket office, we progressed towards the Loftus Versfeld stadium, where we effortlessly secured a trio of adjacent seats at near face value. It was a promising start to the tournament.
The Serbians had been tipped to go far in the competition, but on the evidence of their first game they are unlikely to qualify from Group D. The Ghanaians were not particularly impressive either, although they undoubtedly deserved their goal with which they secured victory. A certain banner proclaiming ‘THOSE SCOUSERS GET EVERYWHERE’ provided the backdrop to the decisive penalty kick. Slow motion repeats were beamed around the world to emphasise the point.
In the stands the Serbs were few in number and unwavering in their collective refusal to smile. By contrast the Ghanaians were the polar opposite, plentiful, colourful, vocal and cheerful. Having spent a memorable fortnight following Ghana around the African Nations tournament they hosted in 2008, it was a pleasure to re-acquaint myself with both the impressive and the senseless elements of West African fandom. Spanning both categories, the fan with a smoking pot the size of a football resting on his head unsurprisingly drew some confused gazes. After the game we stumbled upon a fan fest, where Mick proudly displayed his Tony and Gay haircut, asking everyone he saw for their opinion – in incomprehensible Scouse. Meanwhile Danny spoke to representatives of a dozen countries from Mexico to Australia. None of them understood Mick and none of them liked his haircut.
The following day we headed back to Jo’burg, intent on seeing Holland play Denmark at the impressive World Cup final venue. We arrived at Soccer City a minute before kick off, but were still confident of picking up another triplet of face value tickets. Supply vastly outstrips demand at this World Cup. Minutes later, we sauntered into the ground that Mick described as ‘the spaceship from District 9’, in time to see Liverpool duo Daniel Agger and Dirk Kuyt head in the game’s only goals. Unfortunately for the Dane, his landed in his own net, and with that the Dutch took the points.
With the characteristically balanced British media representation of South Africa’s alleged social problems seeping through our consciousness, we were keen to minimise the risk-taking during the rest of the day in Jo’burg. So we headed to a shopping mall to purchase something vaguely edible, and of course, a football. Four yards later Danny was in deep conversation with two Argentineans, and a South African lady had put a smile on Mick’s face with false claims of liking his hair. When he returned from cloud nine an impromptu game of piggy in the middle started. Once Mick had realised the limitations of the game as a two-player event, he encouraged the involvement of various intrigued bystanders. Two hours later we finally lost the ball thanks to a misguided header from Mick’s quiff, signalling the end of a memorable experience. Players from five continents representing various levels of inebriation, ability, hairstyles and political persuasions had completely taken over a corner of the shopping mall. When new players asked where we were from we simply replied ‘the United Nations’. The chances of the game being stopped were limited by the exuberant participation of the mall’s two security guards, whose brief probably included preventing such activities. This was South Africa at its best.
We headed to Rustenburg on our third day to see the site of Robert Green’s finest hour; expecting a game poor both in quality and attendance. Armed with this attitude, the New Zealand v Slovakia contest did not fail to disappoint. The tournament organisers had been widely advertising the availability of tickets for this highly forgettable encounter. Neither country is used to football at this level – indeed it was Slovakia’s first ever appearance in the tournament – and it showed. A painfully poor standard of football did little to lift the spirits of the paltry crowd. We suppressed our boredom by walking around the ground to see if the view improved from different sides of the pitch. It didn’t.
Although the Slovaks took the lead and look set to lead Group F after the first round of matches, Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel could not prevent a late Kiwi goal which earned New Zealand a share of the spoils. Continuing the theme of questionable decisions we decided to leave the ground a minute prior to the equaliser, before heading to neighbouring Botswana for tea. That sounded very Rhodesian, but in reality it was only Coke and Pringles. At 10pm we were unsure of which country we would be sleeping in that night, never mind which hotel. Just the way it should be.
The following morning we woke somewhere near an international border, in a suspect B&B which refused to serve us breakfast. The morbidly obese lady at the reception did not appreciate my suggestion that her establishment-cum-service should be renamed ‘bed’, although we cleared the air over a chat about Mick’s hair, which by this stage was spiralling out of control. Danny came over for a ‘quick’ chat but eventually we shut him up and were on the road again, heading east.
The general aim was to head for Kruger Park, but the closer our position came to the Mozambique border, the greater the possibility of adding another World Cup fixture to the collection. We arrived at the distinctive and distinctly impressive Mbombala Stadium in Nelspruit just before kick off. At that point I paid a local the equivalent of ten English pounds for a ticket to the most entertaining game we had seen. The skilful Chileans comfortably overcame the Hondurans 1-0, although that margin did not accurately reflect the gulf in ability between the two teams. With Chile completing the quintet of impressive South American teams, expect the World Cup’s most successful continent to produce another winner in South Africa.
Day four, game four – not a bad start to the World Cup. Now Kruger calls, as we head towards the legendary wildlife national park that has a larger land mass than Holland. Allegedly there is a monkey there with a bigger mouth than Danny and more hair than Mick, but I’ll have to meet him to believe it. That aside, in a temporary break from football fever, day five is all about the big five.
© Joel Rookwood & Soccerphile.com
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