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A Game Apart

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A Game Apart


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Monday, 1 February 2010

Have a look at this, latest edition of Soccer Week magazine in South Africa...


Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, 17 January 2010

With Pienaar and the vuvuzelas on their side, perhaps South Africa have a chance

AT last Steven Pienaar is offering a glimmer of on-field optimism for Bafana Bafana. Yes, South Africa may be gearing up nicely for the World Cup in June – I’ve been to the Moses Mabhida in Durban, Green Point in Cape Town, Soccer City in Soweto –off the field, great job.

But it’s on the field where pessimism strikes at the heart among the Rainbow Nation’s population, whether they follow local football or not. Invariably not.

But my question for those doubters is this: “How can any side fail to compete at the top level with Steven Pienaar at the heart of things?”

The bloke is a revelation. Anybody who watched Everton’s emphatic 2-0 win over Manchester City’s millionaires will understand the point.

Sure Pienaar scored his third goal in three games – a neat near-post free-kick nearly as good as his exquisite finish in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last week – but goals aren’t the only currency for the former Ajax Amsteram midfielder.

He is one of those rare midfielders who can perform the “Makalele” role – defensive, along the lines of Alex Song at Arsenal or Michael Essien at Chelsea. He is also adept at the creative passing and quick break element – think Stevie Gerrard at Liverpool, though not lately. And of course, he has the engine of a Frank Lampard, able to run all day and work in both penalty areas, almost simultaneously.

Yet here sit South Africa. Failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations and at No86 in the fickle FIFA tables, the lowest ranked side ever to host a World Cup

It can’t be right. Given you’ve got only 31 nations visiting here in June, there’s a good chance you’ll finish better than 86th, especially if Pienaar is given free reign in your midfield. Arguably, with the captain’s armband on. He’s 27, he played in Cape Town, Amsterdam, Dortmund and Liverpool, he has the experience.

Remember, Benni McCarthy and Aaron Makoena have also been scoring Premier League goals in recent weeks.

But it worries me when, this week, I hear Bafana coach Carlos Parreira saying he’ll build his team around a core of South African-based players.

Before this epic cricket series between South Africa and England started I got around to a few grounds and saw, amongst others, your champions Supersports United beat lowly Jomo Cosmos 3-0 at a nearly-empty Loftus Versfeld.

And let’s be frank, Stevie Pienaar would have made a huge difference in a game like that. The idea that Parreira may build his side around players not playing in the European leagues is deeply flawed, though understandable.

He’s taken 29 players down to Durban (why not at high altitude? All the big World Cup teams will be preparing at altitude given the World Cup final will be played at 5,000 feet).for friendlies against Swaziland on Saturday in Chatsworth and Zimbabwe at the superb Moses Mabhida stadium next Wednesday.

I know he’s unhappy about Elrio van Heerden not getting much action for Blackburn – he’s now in Turkey with Sivasspor and trying to regain full fitness.

And you can sympathise with Parreira when he says: “I don’t think David Moyes will allow Pienaar to join us before the World Cup because he has become a vital player for them. We will have to wait until late in May for him and Mokoena at Portsmouth.”

He’s right, but that doesn’t mean the side shouldn’t be built around Pienaar variously described as “superb”, “a revelation” and “unstoppable” by the British papers this morning.

Let’s take the view from Pienaar himself, who handles himself well in front of the cameras, as a captain-elect should: “I would definitely say I am a more complete player since coming to Everton.

“I do think South Africa might still surprise a few people at the World Cup. We players have to be ready to show we are not just a team with a few individuals. Part of the problem is that, compared with some other African countries, some of our players are not hungry enough. Maybe we’re not very adventurous and don’t like to be away from home

For us to go to the second round, that is the expectation of the people. I think we can get out of the group.

“Mexico and Uruguay play quite similar to us, only France will be a bit of a challenge for us.

“The crowd will boost the players and we will be confident with them behind us. We hope they will be behind us.”

Pienaar came out strongly in defence of South Africa when the British press were linking the Togo team bus shootings in Cabinda with the upcoming World Cup. And the man born in Westbury near Johannesburg but thriving on Merseyside, says: “You know, things are getting better in Westbury. The crime’s coming down a bit.

“I don’t think too many visitors will going to Westbury but they will be coming to a beautiful country and the tournament is going to be very good for South Africa.”

Remember, the hosts invariably do shockingly well at World Cups. South Korea, France, Germany, Argentina... blimey, even England won it when they got to host it 44 years ago.

With Pienaar and the vuvuzela-blasting home fans behind them, who knows what South Africa are capable of producing in five months' time?

Labels: bafana bafana, carlos parreira, , fifa rankings, south africa hosts, steven pienaar

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The first British journalist into England's training camp... ME (and me dad and me brother!)

YESTERDAY I became the first British journalist allowed to view the England training camp before the 2010 World Cup.

And believe me, it wasn’t easy. Hidden behind the faded motel entrance (pictured, right) the Bafokeng Royal Sports Palace Complex isn’t even finished yet. Exactly 6km (about two-and-a-half-miles) beyond the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which rises out of nowhere in Phokeng, just outside Rustenburg, Fabio Capello’s pre-tournament home is emerging out of the platinum-rich red earth.

England will play the USA at the recently-revamped 50,000-capacity Palace on June 12. But their high-altitude base is the key to success. Hidden behind a peeling sign proclaiming “Sun Gardens Motel” an unbelievable centre for sports excellence is being built in secret, funded by the local Bafokeng tribe, who claim a percentage of the platinum profits.

But British journalists and hopeful onlookers are kept at arm’s length between Phokeng and Boshoek, two tiny African villages outside Rustenburg. We drove for miles searching for the mystical England training complex, expecting huge signage, before a local explained: “It’s behind that tree.”

In disbelief, we crossed the N14 to Sun City, about 100km from the international airport in Johannesburg, which we had travelled for some time. And the gateman at the apparently drab “Sun Gardens Motel” told us: “The Royal Bafokeng Sports Complex is here sir. But you are not allowed in.”

But we are old hands at this. My locally-based father Bob, my brother Glynn and I have already discovered the German base at Velmore Estate, the Italian camp at Leriba Lodge and the USA base at Irene, all near the Test cricket ground in Centurion.

After much persuasion, the gateman called up the big guy. Mark Ferguson, group security in charge of keeping prying eyes away from England’s base. Built to satisfy the king of the Bafokeng, Kagosi Leruo Molotgeti, England have the prime spot for their World Cup preparations. But nobody is allowed to see it.

While Spain, Italy, Argentina and the like face bus journeys between their hotels, training grounds and World Cup venues, England have it all on their doorstep as they prepare to dominate Group C in June next year.

Ferguson confirmed: “The tribe are funding all of this, it’s going to be a sporting centre of excellence for years to come. We are the highest point in South Africa, 100m higher than Johannesburg and Pretoria at 1500m.

“It sets teams up for playing at altitude. We will have the New Zealand and Australia rugby teams preparing here for the Tri-Nations. All kinds of sports teams will come here. But at the moment, we’re trying to keep things under wraps, no journalists allowed. No visitors”

There followed a brief chat. It turns out Ferguson, from Durban, used to play football in Kwa Zulu Natal. I know his old mates. He lets us through the gate, beyond the Sun Gardens Motel, which appears to be a lowly front for what is to come.

We follow him on his quad bike, into the complex. Five plastic pitches are being prepared. Ten grass pitches, unfairly criticised by Capello for having bare patches, are taking shape. They’ll be perfect by May, the rains are good. At least 12 floodlight pylons are already up, with the actual lights still to come.

This is an African sporting paradise. Two of the four sections of the luxury hotel were released by the builders in November. Two more are still to come. The Presidential suites are fabulous, the mirrors are huge, the players will want for nothing. And there is a high-spec gym under construction, with oxygen chambers and all a modern footballer could wish for.

“Look, this is a project still under development. We can’t even confirm England are staying here,” says Ferguson with a wry grin, “We will be ready by May though. You’d be amazed what we can do here, and we are only using local labour. The overseas experts will be brought in later.”

Across the road lies the Kedar country hotel, already fully booked for the World Cup. You’d pay £1,000 a night to book the Presidential Suite here, in a hotel with game lodge attached. Beautiful.

In six months, England will be perfectly placed for their World Cup crusade, David Beckham’s final attempt to end 43 years of hurt. Wife Victoria and the WAGS will be based in a lodge like Kedar or Sun City, South Africa’s Las Vegas, 30 miles up the road.

If we don’t win the World Cup from here, in the middle of nowhere, we never will. With the African nations all suffering in the draw in Cape Town on December 4 and England facing the USA down the road before games against Slovenia in Cape Town and Algeria in Port Elizabeth. They’ll pop down to the coast for those two games to maintain their altitude acclimatisation. When you play at sea-level after training inland, you can run forever.

And then they come back to Phokeng, barely three miles from here, for their first knock-out encounter. It couldn’t be any better. England are looking good for the World Cup 2010. As long as you know where to look.

Labels: England Rustenburg, , , group c, , USA