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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The World Cup venues: what the players, WAGs and fans can expect

THE World Cup venues in South Africa are so diverse, they could just be the key to England’s success next summer. Before tomorrow’s draw in Cape Town, players, WAGS and fans might be interested in a quick guide to the nine towns on offer.

From Cape Town in the south to Polokwane in the north, the grounds for next year’s tournament are stretched over 1,000 miles, the equivalent of travelling the length of England - and back.

The climate ranges from tropical to Mediterranean, the altitude from sea level in Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth to a breathless 5,000 feet in Johannesburg, with Pretoria, Rustenburg, Nelspruit. Bloemfontein and Polokwane also high on the escarpment which rises in the centre of the country.

Next June will be winter in South Africa, but that doesn’t guarantee rain. The inland cities (Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Nelspruit, Polokwane and Rustenburg) are basically parched from April to September, with rainfall in the summer only. Though the World Cup pitches will be watered, generally amateur football is played on concrete-like surfaces with dead grass in the winter. Overnight frosts are not uncommon.

On the coast, Cape Town has winter rain, much like Britain, while steamy Durban can be wet all year round – though it has also suffered years of drought in the past. Port Elizabeth lies somewhere between the two, geographically and climatically.

Then there’s the development to consider. Cape Town is essentially a European city plonked on the end of the continent, with a rich history and nearby wine lands. Port Elizabeth and Durban are pleasant seaside resorts, though tropical Durban can get extremely humid in the summer, our winter.

Downtown Johannesburg has improved but Sandton, to the north, is where the cricket and rugby teams generally reside and offers just about everything a British town could offer. Similarly, the middle of Pretoria is not as welcoming as you’d hope, but Centurion to the south is stockbroker belt as far as shops and restaurants go.

England won’t want to go to the outlying areas though. Polokwane is remote and too far north to be a tourist trap, though it is surrounded by game parks. Nelspruit offers great hiking trails and forests but is by no means a metropolis. And Rustenburg, though close to the casinos and golf courses of Sun City, is hardly where you’d want to spend a holiday.

And then there’s Bloemfontein. It’s a big city but no paradise for English tourists. Though Bloemfontein Celtic, the local professional side, offer perhaps the most demonstrative fans in the South African Premier Division, Bloemfontein is generally considered, like Pretoria, a bastion of rugby and Afrikanerdom. Though things are changing since the outbreak of democracy in 1993, English accents are not always greeted with welcoming smiles.

Fabio Capello, though tempted to ban the wives and girlfriends, knows the WAGS will come out for the World Cup. But if the side are drawn to play in Nelspruit, Rustenburg, Bloemfontein or Polokwane, God help them. Let’s get this straight, these are not holiday resorts, they are remote African towns unsuitable for wandering the shops and going out at night. During the World Cup, there will be a livelier atmosphere, but visit those town centres tomorrow and you’d find it pretty inhospitable. It’s hard to imagine 20,000 England fans happily spending a few days in any of them.

Though plush game reserves surround the three northern cities there are no obvious places for WAGs or fans to amuse themselves. Bloemfontein offers more but a London orbital town like Watford would be far more vibrant. Though the FA has looked at Rustenburg’s soccer academy as a possible pre-tournament camp venue, those four cities are not quite what England will be after.

Johannesburg and Pretoria, though also at altitude, which presents its own problems, can offer reasonable facilities for fans and WAGs... as long as they do as they’re told. There are areas around both cities which will suit English travellers and Loftus Versveld, the World Cup ground in Pretoria, is a reasonable venue for fans to prepare for a match.

Ellis Park in central Johannesburg and Soccer City, near Soweto, are less welcoming but should be well marshalled during matches. Again, fans would be advised not to wander too far afield at either venue.

But if it’s a quality World Cup England and their fans are after, the coastal cities should provide it.

Durban’s brand new Moses Mobhida Stadium (pictured) is a monumental effort, complete with a Wembley-style arch and a walkway to the nearby North Beach, which is really what the biggest city in KwaZulu Natal is all about. Though the centre of Durban shows signs of decay, new developments around the once-feared harbour end of town have improved matters. North of Durban, England fans might find plush beach resorts like Umhlanga and Ballito worth exploring. Durban also offers some of the largest shopping malls in the country, with Gateway near Umhlanga the largest in the southern hemisphere. It’s WAG paradise with every designer outlet and for fans, there are rooftop go-karts, 10-pin bowling, cinemas, a theatre and plenty of restaurants.

Port Elizabeth is smaller than Durban and again, the centre shows signs of decay. But south of the city offers similar beachside facilities to Durban, with casinos and safe night-time venues. Not renowned as a football hub, Bayi, as it is now known, boasts the country’s loudest cricket fans and a good match-day atmosphere. Hopefully they’ll turn up for the football too.

And finally, saving the best to last, we travel down the beautiful Garden Route from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town and the new Green Point Stadium. The oldest city in South Africa has it all. The cable car up Table Mountain, the cruise out to Robben Island, the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, the nearby winelands. Paradise. England’s cricket and rugby fans will confirm that Cape Town is the place to be for players, fans and hangers-on. There are dozens of top-of-the-range shopping malls and, unlike the rest of South Africa, the houses are not fenced in. Cape Town has a less paranoid approach to crime.

In summary:

Where England want to be:

Green Point Stadium, Cape Town (70,000)

Perfect draw for England. No altitude to worry about, winter’s much like England but slightly warmer. Fine new stadium.

Moses Mobhida Stadium, Durban (68,000)
Winter will ease the tropical problems of heat and humidity, great beaches even in winter...and another brand new stadium.

Nelson Mandela Stadium, Port Elizabeth (50,000)

Stay south of the city for the best of Bayi, plenty of English settler history inland, beautiful coastline north and south

Where England will struggle with altitude but might be okay:

Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg (60,000)

Situated close to the centre of the golden city, it still feels a bit intimidating in the streets but a ground with a big history.
Soccer City, Johannesburg (95,000)

Close to Soweto, great stadium with an African design, but needs further development around the ground

Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria (45,000)
Home of the rugby gods the Blue Bulls, pleasant area near centre of Pretoria, shouldn’t be a problem

Where England won’t want to be:

Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit (40,000)

It’s a small town, good for game reserves and hiking but not football fans. Trouble over the new stadium appears to be over.
Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein (40,000)

It’s not a town you instantly fall in love with but it’s big and bustling and the stadium is an established rugby venue
Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg (40,000)

Sun City, half-an-hour away, is worth a visit. Rustenburg isn’t, though it has been pushed as a big footballing venue of late

Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane (40,000)

Once known as Pietersburg, Polokwane is a remote northern town, a long way from the centre of the action

Labels: bloemfontein, , , grounds, guide, , nelspruit, polokwane, , pretoria, , World Cup venues

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Rout of Africa: England instantly unbeatable in Port Elizabeth

SO this is rapidly becoming the Jekyll and Hyde tour. One minute England are absolute rubbish, bring 'em home, drop the lot. Then they're unbeatable, superb, give them all a knighthood.
Did I say unbeatable? After today's emphatic seven-wicket victory over South Africa in Port Elizabeth that's exactly what Andrew Strauss's men have become, given that they're 2-1 up in the One-Day series with one to play at Durban on Friday. Not bad against a side unbeaten in ODI series since 2002.
Today's victory, set up by a best-ever James Anderson (10-3-5-23, right), superb discipline plus incredible fielding and finished off by Cape Town-born Jonathan Trott's unbeaten 52, was in total contrast to Friday night's record thrashing at the hands of Graeme Smith's men at Newlands.
We blamed that little lot on Strauss's failure to win the toss. He lost it again today and admitted afterwards: "That was a good toss to lose" as a "very disappointed" Smith chose to bat and, despite being 55-3 and 78-4, slumped to 119 all out off just under 37 overs.
Strauss grinned: "We had a good chat about what went wrong in Cape Town and were very accurate today. James Anderson was outstanding, creating pressure and bowling wicket-taking deliveries as well."Anderson said: "We had a chat after the last game because we didn't bowl as well as we could have done. We wanted to come here and bowl a lot better, and luckily we got a wicket (Smith) that helped us with our plans."

They all failed, the great South Africans who had made our lives a misery in Cape Town. Graeme Smith went first, leg before to Stuart Broad for two, Hashim Amla was Anderson's first victim for 11 and the great AB De Villiers was snaffled up by a jubilant Tim Bresnan. He look unhappy with the LBW decision, but it looked pretty good on Sky. But then I would say that. I'm off to cover the four Tests next week and this is just the result England needed.

Somehow, despite the huge gulf between these two sides, were are going to get to the four five-day clashes without losing either the Twenty20 or the ODI showdowns. Amazing.

Yet today England actually looked the tighter, more impressive outfit, just as they had in Centurion a week before. Anderson, shrugging off his injured knee, bowled like a dream, Strauss captained with verve and purpose, bringing Jimmy back quicker than expected to complete his first five-wicket haul in ODIs, Luke Wright, though he didn't bowl that well, finished the Proteas with an astonishing one-handed catch to get rid of Alviro Petersen, South Africa's only batsman on the day with 51 off 79 balls.
Trott led the way in reply, scoring his 52 off 77 balls and though he lost skipper Strauss for 28 after a 74-run opening partnership, Eoin Morgan joined him with 28 off 38 to complete victory. Oh, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood failed but by then, who cared?
Durban on Friday becomes a real contest, with South Africa desperate to bounce back, struggling to retain that unbeaten home record. But somehow, it won't matter. England are unbeatable!

Labels: england one-day international, , ,

Saturday, 28 November 2009

One win in seven, but South Africa are favourites in Port Elizabeth

SOUTH AFRICA'S rugby team return home this week with an unwanted record of just one win in five games. After today's 15-10 defeat against Ireland, the World Cup-winners fly home having beaten just Italy on their trip to Europe, with defeats against France, Leicester and Saracens to add to today's 15-10 defeat in Dublin. Shocking!
Their cricket team of course is in even worse shape. In their last seven One-Day International showdowns against England they've won just once. Not great for the No1 ranked Test nation. Nearly as bad as their football team, still switching coaches and begging stars to play six months before football's World Cup kicks-off in Johannesburg on 11 June next year.
But let's be honest, that's a cheap dig at Graeme Smith's Proteas. They are in a different league to the Rainbow Nation's football and rugby sides right now.
Friday's clash at Newlands saw a comprehensive victory for the Proteas, with centurion AB De Villiers imperious in a 118-run triumph which levels the series at 1-1 with two to play. Home skipper Graeme Smith says he now intends to make life very diffficult for Andrew Strauss, who insists his side are "still a work in progress".
The teams flew up the Garden Route at the crack of dawn this morning for tomorrow's clash at Port Elizabeth with Paul Collingwood, fresh from scores of 105 not out and 86, insisting: "We're straight back into a game tomorrow, but in many ways that's a good thing. I feel in very good form at the moment - I'm seeing the ball well. I'm enjoying the wickets out here, I gained a lot of confidence from playing in the Champions Trophy on faster and bouncier wickets.
"My confidence is high, and it's amazing what you can do when confidence is that high."
You can say that again. A couple of weeks into the tour it looked like a bad back might force him out of action. Now he says: "It's settling down. I think I've just got to control it as much as possible. Touch wood, everything feels fine at the moment - and I hope we can get another win."
England's other wounded troops, James Anderson (knee), Graeme Swann (side) and Stuart Broad (shoulder), should all be okay to resume battle tomorrow but having let the South Africans get a near-record 354-6 on Friday, the return of Swann and Broad didn't have quite the impact England were hoping for in Cape Town... where losing the toss was a huge drawback.
While Strauss practices his coin-tossing, South Africa are sweating on the dodgy hamstring of the world's No1 pace bowler Dale Steyn, though they have the consolation of knowing Wayne Parnell and Morne Morkel returned to take eight wickets between them in Cape Town. Charl Langeveldt is ready to step up and Smith says: "If Dale doesn't play we will miss him dearly. But the positive side is it gives someone else the opportunity to rise to the occasion."

On a weekend when Tiger Woods crashed his car, Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick and West Ham enjoyed a high five, tomorrow sees further huge sporting showdowns including this one in Port Elizabeth and, in London, the make-or-break game for Arsenal against Premier League leaders Chelsea. As a cricketing Gooner, I predict a sad Sabbath. South Africa and Chelsea will seize the day. As for Real Madrid v Barcelona, on immediately after the Arsenal v Chelsea clash... it's got to be Barca.

Labels: , , , , Ireland rugby, , , series, , Springboks