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A Game Apart


London Evening Standard



Paddy Power

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Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Germans are coming... and so are England. But Brazil are in Bloemfontein...

SOMEWHERE between searching for a cheese shop in the African highveld and watching Arsenal stuff Liverpool, my dad and I found a gem today. The German World Cup hotel.
Yes, there we were in the blistering African sun, about five miles from our base in Centurion, venue for the first cricket Test match between England and South Africa, innocently looking for dairy products, when suddenly we spied an oasis. A huge, ostentatious complex called the Velmore Estate (above).
"Hold on dad," I said in my journalist-cum-son way, "Isn't that where the USA are staying for the World Cup?"
"Bugger off," said dad, in his father-cum-Hitler way, "The cheese shop is just down here somewhere."
Indeed it was, about two miles further on the road to Pretoria West, just out of a mundane little suburb called Erasmia. The middle of nowhere. Believe me. And the cheese shop owners put me right: "It's not the USA, it's the Germans. They're going to be here for the World Cup. We're trying to sell them our biltong and feta product!"
They're also trying to get an acohol licence for their little coffee shop, and satellite television with all the sports channels. They know they're sitting on (or very near to) a goldmine, which will open briefly in the middle of South Africa this winter.
Yes, from the start of June until mid-July, Michael Ballack and his Germans will be staying in the middle of nowhere, about 15 miles outside of Pretoria, 30 miles from Oliver Tambo international airport and 35 miles from Johannesburg.
But what a middle of nowhere the Velmore is. For my German readers: "Achtung! Das hotel ist gross!"
Bloody huge it is. Two hotels actually. The Velmore and the Velmore Grande. They sit on the banks of the sometimes Amazonian Hennops River, which can be reduced to a muddy trickle in winter here.
Sandwiched between a typical South African homestead with washing on the line and a nursery full of highveld daisies, it's a dream. Like Pennyhill Park, where England's rugby players prepare for their big games in Bagshot, it has everything a modern sports team could ask for. And a little bit more.
Visitors should not be put off by the early appearance of two emus as you negotiate your way through security. Not African ostriches. Bloody antipodean emus. I ask you...
Beyond the exotic birds lies paradise. Two gorgeous five star hotels, one next to the other. A spa to die for, as good as Pennyhill Park with an Ozone bed. Three huge banqueting halls, a marriage chapel, a swimming pool with a sandy beach 600 miles from the coast and a long stretch of lawn next to the river which will soon echo to the sound of German international footballers in top gear.
Ishmael Maja, the supervisor from Polokwane, another World Cup venue, showed us round in a golf buggy, telling us: "We know it will be hard work having millionaire footballers here for six weeks, but we are ready. We can handle anything. If they ask, they will get it."
Endless well-dressed, articulate staff attend your every move, the rooms are sumptuous (at R1,500 a night for a standard bed per night, they should be, that's about £120, going up to £2,500 for a luxury room, about £200, which is pricey for South Africa) and the decor is stunning - they only opened the second, grande hotel in November.
Clearly England have the upper hand, about an hour's drive away in Rustenburg's Bafokeng Sports Palace, where numerous training grounds lie in wait outside the doors of their hotel. But they got in first. Fabio Capello, knowing his side would get Group C and a first group game in Rustenburg, he got the prime venue for preparation. It boasts huge mirrors, which David Beckham may enjoy, and is literally fit for a king, Kgosi Leruo Molotlegio, the monarch of the Bafokeng tribe (who earn a significant amount from the local platinum mines) had the place built.
But the Germans haven't done badly. Unlike the seaside bases booked by France (Knysna) and Japan (George), they'll be at altitude (about 1,300m, like a low-lying ski resort) and they can scoot down to the coast for their sea-level qualifiers, just like England.
The prevailing wisdom, gleaned from our rugby and cricketers, is that World Cup preparation should be done at altitude. Then, even when you pop down to sea-level, as England will do in Cape Town versus Algeria and Port Elizabeth against Slovenia, you keep the high red-blood corpuscle count and are able to maintain your acclimatisation to the thinner air up here.
That's why Argentina will be based at Pretoria University's High Performance Centre and Australia are headed for the stunning Kloofzicht Lodge in Muldersdrift, near Johannesburg.
The USA are based at Irene Country Lodge and Italy at Leriba Lodge, both a stone's throw from where England's cricketers will start their Test series on Wednesday.
All and all, it makes for boom time in these parts. Money is pouring in to Centurion and the surrounding areas in the 35 miles between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Nobody has chosen to base themselves in Cape Town (the only city where it rains in the South African winter) and only Holland have decided opted for the bright lights of mid-city (the Sandton Sun, where England's cricketers are currently housed, watching the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year awards).
And while our cricketers will be lamenting another massive thunderstorm tonight, our footballers need not worry. It doesn't rain here in winter.
England and Germany appear to have the perfect preparation for the World Cup all lined up. Unlike Brazil, who are headed for gloomy Bloemfontein and the Slovenians, based in Johannesburg.
But watch out for Spain. The Euro 2006 champions have booked in to Hunter's Rest in Rustenburg after their impressive unbeaten qualifying run. Another oasis.
In sport, as in life, preparation is everything. These may seem mere details but come June, all this could be vital. And the WAGs can go to Sun City. Perfect. England, Germany or Spain it is. And Arsenal for the Premier League after the weekend's topsy-turvy goings-on.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, 11 December 2009

England 14,000 beds short in Rustenburg: Exclusive!

IT'S all gone mad in sunny South Africa today. Unbeknown to me, while I was swanning around in the pool in Centurion yesterday, the national radio station 702 had picked up on my story about the World Cup draw being fixed (see early blogs and youtube video, search for thenealcol).
Turns out the presenter, David O'Sullivan, a year younger than me when we attended the world-leading journalism course at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, had seen my stuff about the World Cup draw being fixed.
It got the whole nation talking and another old university pal, the World Cup communications director Rich Mdkhondo, was wheeled out to defend the draw. I've just spoken to him on the phone. We've agreed to disagree!
He's a cracking fellow Rich. I've said if he ever needs a positive British voice on the World Cup 2010, just call me.
But then the same radio station asked me to go on tonight at 5.40pm (you can listen live online, just go to and sent me a leaked interview with the tourism minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk (above). He reassured everyone two days ago about accommodation during the World Cup... but his official quotes appear to suggest otherwise.
This is the story I sent to the Evening Standard in London:
SOUTH AFRICA have admitted they have a huge shortfall of 14,000 beds in Rustenburg - and similar problems in several other World Cup towns.
England, who have been planning to prepare for the World Cup at Rustenburg's Bafokeng Sports Palace for over a year, will be shocked to learn that nothing has been done about the lack of accommodation in the unfashionable town in the North West province.
Many felt the World Cup draw had been fixed when England, already booked in to their facility, were put in Group C - with their first game against the United States in Rustenburg on June 12.
England got the draw they wanted with the town affectionately known as "Rusty" far enough away to keep the fans out of trouble but happily housed.
But when minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk was asked how the Rainbow Nationw ould cope with the expected 450,000 visitors to his country for Africa's first World Cup kicking-off on June 11, he appeared to be short on answers.
He said: "In terms of the audited database for Rustenburg, there are 134 establishments, translating to 3,489 room and 6,978 beds. We anticipate a shortfall of 14,200 beds."
And the bad news doesn't end there. He added: "Polokwane has 149 establishments, which translate to 2,794 rooms and 5,588 beds. We anticipate a shortfall of 17,000 beds.
"Bloemfontein has 225 establishments, translating to 2,677 room and 5,354 beds. We anticipate a shortfall of 14,100 beds."
And his solution? "To address this, we have extended the definition of host cities to include surrounding areas which can be accessible within an hour, Rustenburg is not far from Gauteng, and Bloemfontein is not far from Kimberley and Polokwane is also not far from Gauteng, Nelspruit and Zimbabwe. We have therefore integrated surrounding areas to accommodate the shortfall and will ensure that there is enough transport to accommodate the fans and visitors."
What the minister neglected to mention is that Rustenburg is a good hour, about 60 miles, from Sandton outside Johannesburg and Centurion south of Pretoria, the two main tourism hubs in Gauteng.
The N4 motorway - a toll road - is in good shape, but getting on to it from Sandton or Centurion is by no means straightforward. Anybody staying in central Johannesburg will be facing at least a 90-minute trip to watch England train in Rustenburg in early June.
Van Schalwyk added: "We anticipate that there will be three million visitors, a third of which will be international visitors. People will not be flying in to attend one game but will come from different games depending on which teams advance to the next round. So the expected 450 000 is not for one game but for the entire event."
Locals are hoping "ungraded" establishments and rented houses will help, but the Minister is clearly worried: "A room that is ungraded is a room that has not been quality assured by the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa. It is difficult to say how it will look like because it has not been checked by the authorities.
"Such an establishment is however authorised to work as a business because quality assurance in South Africa is not mandatory. We however encourage fans to use graded establishments since they would know what to expect from graded establishments."
The web portal for booking accommodation will open by February.

Phew! Hope they don't get too angry about that here. And anyway, my dad's got a guesthouse in Centurion, so the tourists will be flocking to Chez Collins! Off to watch PSL leaders SuperSport United play bottom side Jomo Cosmos tomorrow. It's at Loftus Versfeld, the rugby stadium which doubles as a World Cup venue. Should be interesting. I'll take pictures and tell you more tomorrow...

Labels: , England World Cup venue, exclusive, minister of tourism, , south, USA

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

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