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A Game Apart


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Friday, 4 December 2009

Rustenburg for England. Put your shirt on it.

STOP PRESS: England are, indeed, drawn as C1 in Rustenburg. It's a fix!

What I wrote three hours before: YOU may not have heard of Rustenburg. You will soon, that's where England are headed next summer to prepare for the World Cup. Sadly, they won't be based in surfers' paradise Durban or cosmopolitan Cape Town.
The wives and girlfriends, not to mention an estimated 25,000 England fans, might have hoped for bigger shopping malls, beaches and nightclubs. But it should be okay for the players, once the final details have been sorted out.
So what can I tell you about the town locally known as "Rusties", population 400,000, altitude 1500m (around the same as most ski resorts in Europe) with an average winter daytime temperature of 17C?
It's the fastest-growing South African town in the middle of the platinum belt about 60 miles from Johannesburg. A bit like Luton compared to London, it's not the place you'd really want to spend that much time as a tourist, though Las Vegas-lookalike Sun City is just 13 miles down the road. It boasts churches, monuments and battle fields as its major attractions, apart from the game parks.
But Rustenburg is where England will be based when, as I suspect, Fabio Capello's men get drawn in position C1 in Cape Town tonight with their first game scheduled for the nearby 42,000-capacity Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace (pictured) at 7.30pm on June 12. Great name for a stadium isn't it? It's in the North West Province of South Africa, close to Mafeking where Lord Baden-Powell and the British held out under siege around the turn of the 20th century. One of the great victories of the Boer War. Great history. Stubborn types around these parts. The locals insisted on a large slice of the precious minerals in their once-volcanic area and have pumped their money into football and tourism to offset to bleak mines which loom large on the road to Sun City.
And that kind of money can also influence World Cup draws, or so it appears. Why else would Capello keep worrying about the state of the training pitches in a town most Italian tourists wouldn't offer a second glance?
He was there again this week, complaining: "The facilities are OK but some things are not. The pitches are not great. We are working a lot. I think we will find the solution. The problem is the pitches. But we have time. The problem is the grass."
Capello is worried about what he calls "jungle grass" but in fact the 14 training pitches at the Sports Palace Training Complex are typical of the best surfaces around the high-altitude stadiums nearby. A mixture of rye grass and the local kikuyu, a hardly, deep-rooted, patchy plant which can withstand frost and heat, hail and drought, which is what the Highveld climate can throw at you.
And if England hoped to move their pre-tournament training camp to Pretoria University, where the metrosexual world champion 800m runner Caster Semanya was carefully developed,
they're stymied. Argentina booked their complex last week. Typical!
Bafokeng today joined the pitch battle with spokesman Martin Bekker telling Capello: "The pitches are looking pristine. We know all the hard work that has gone in there and everyone has trust in the guys who made the stadium. If anything the pressure is to make sure that the hotel is on schedule. For the pitches it is not a great fear."
But all this is mere detail. Though Capello says a final decision isn't expected until February, expect England to be based in Rustenburg for two weeks before the finals kick off on June 11. He will be able to keep the WAGs at arms' length, the fans will stay in the bigger cities (if they are drawn in group C, game two will be in Cape Town on June 18 and game three in Port Elizabeth on June 23).
England will return to Rustenburg if they win the group for the first knock-out round on June 26. Perfect. They will fly in and out with Rustenburg as their base and remain acclimatised for high altitude, which gives you more red blood corpuscles and more puff at sea level. How do I know? Because I've lived there, and like Capello, I've seen the progress of our cricket and rugby sides when they go over. Apparently the England and Lions rugby medics have been advising the FA on what to do in South Africa with such contrasts in climate, altitude and temperature.
Oh, and if it is all as I say, the really clever fans will immediately google Pilanesburg Game Reserve and book themselves in for a couple of weeks in one of the plush game lodges there, right next to Sun City and 15 minutes from Rustenburg.
You read it hear first!

Labels: , , group c, royal bafokeng, , south african world cup draw


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