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Friday, 8 January 2010

Far from the shootings in Angola, this is South Africa

As news filters through about the Togo team bus which came under fire from Congolese rebels in Angola, I've just taken a call from Sky News. Like most European media, they will link this attack with the World Cup. I hope to put them straight later this evening.

Though the bus driver is hurt - possibly shot dead - the two Premier League players, Manchester City's Emmanuel Adebayor and Aston Villa's Mustapha Salifou are apparently "shaken but unhurt". It appears the Togo side may now withdraw from the African Nations Cup, which kicks off tomorrow. Togo were supposed to play Michael Essien's Ghana on Monday.

It's not good. This awful incident will have repercussions for the 2010 World Cup, inevitably, though Angola is a war-torn former Portuguese colony thousands of miles from where I am in Johannesburg, awaiting Thursday's decisive fourth cricket Test between England and South Africa.

Perhaps it's time to give my latest verdict on this country, thousands of miles from Cabinda, where yesterday's atrocity took place. I’ve been here a month now, yet another return to Africa. Since mid-December I’ve been covering the four-match Test series between England and South Africa. It’s been an incredible struggle on the cricket field.

But like all sport, what happens off the field is integral to the experience. I’ve been to Centurion, just outside Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and now Johannesburg.

Four entirely different cities, these are the four major World Cup venues later in the year. I attended a game between the local Premier League champions Supersport United and rock-bottom Jomo Cosmos at Loftus Versfeld, the World Cup stadium in the South African administrative capital, Pretoria.

It’s where hosts South Africa will play Uruguay on June 16 and the USA take on Algeria on June 23, just two of the five qualifying games scheduled for the 50,000-capacity rugby stadium opened in 1903 and refurbished many times, the last in 2008.

I was one of the few white fans in evidence, but there was no sense of insecurity or differentness. An electrician called Reggie took me under his wing and gave me a run down on the state of local football. He even offered a tour of the townships and a trip to see the great Kaizer Chiefs. Afterwards, dressed in an England football jersey, I was hugged by the Supersport fans outside as they celebrated a 3-0 victory. “We’ll beat you at the World Cup,” they laughed, hopefully.

Outside the scenic Centurion cricket ground, the brand new Gautrain rail link flies on concrete stilts through the air over the motorways. Most of it will be open in time for the big kick-off on June 11. It is a major feat of modern engineering and a major drain on any nation's resources, costing billions.

And everywhere in Centurion, the rapidly growing metropolis north of Pretoria, there is an awareness the world is coming to town. What can I tell you? That the Velmore Estate, just outside the tiny suburb of Erasmia, will house Michael Ballack and the German team? Magnificent place. Google it. Remote, backing on to the tranquil Hennops River. Helpful staff showed my father and I around the spa, an oxygen chamber and luxury rooms, complex medical facilities – they’re even building a poolside beach.

In Centurion itself, the Italians will be at Leriba Lodge and the Americans will go to Irene Lodge, a mile away. Beautiful African venues with lakes and traditional thatch in evidence. Both will train at local high schools, where special pitches have been laid for the international onslaught of football studs training at altitude, preparing for a World Cup a different heights, but blissfully free of Apartheid.

In neighbouring Pretoria, Diego Maradona's Argentina will be based at the University's High Performance Centre, where the trans-sexual world athletics champion Caster Semenya was coaxed to stardom.

Then, in Muldersdrift, one step closer to Johannesburg, the Australians are staying at beautiful Kloofsicht in the middle of nowhere while the Dutch have chosen the centre of opulent Joburg suburb Sandton for their base, training at the Milpark Stadium, home of local side Wits.

And I even discovered the England training camp outside Rustenburg. Secret, luxurious, not complete until May. Built by the Bafokeng tribe, who earn a percentage from the numerous local platinum mines, the Bafokeng Sports Palace complex offers 17 grass pitches, five artificial surfaces, swimming pools and a magnificent low-slung hotel complex fit for a king. King Kagosi Leruo Molotgeti to be precise. The local monarch has been heavily involved in the project which will become the highest altitude training camp in the country.

The first British journalist to enter the facility, I finally found the burgeoning complex under construction behind a fading motel facade six kilometres along the road to Africa’s Las Vegas Sun City from the Bafokeng World Cup stadium in underdeveloped Phokeng (mind how you pronounce that).

Just by chance (the World Cup draw on December 4 last year was very kind to them!) England will open their campaign against the USA there on June 12 in front of a full-house 42,000 fans from the two best supported nations in South Africa. And they’ll be back for their first knock-out game in the same magnificent bowl if they win Group C. You can read more about this – and see exclusive photographs - on my website at

Then on to the Boxing Day Test in Durban, another town undergoing huge World Cup construction. There I visited the magnificent new Moses Mabhida Stadium, which will host five qualifiers and a semi-final. A magnificent arched arena right next to the huge King’s Park rugby stadium, it will hold 70,000 and they are just finishing the construction of a fans’ walkway to nearby Battery Beach.

Already fans are able to take a cablecar over the arch and they are even planning to allow bungy jumping from the highest point. Incredible!

Durban is a vast, cosmopolitan port, shared by Europeans, Asians and Zulus. I walked to the beach from the luxurious Hilton Hotel a mile away and felt completely at home on the African seaside, body surfing in the huge rollers of the Indian Ocean, where once black people were banned from bathing.

New Year took us to Cape Town and another brand new stadium at Green Point. The scenery has to be seen to be believed. Nestled under Signal Hill next to the landmark Table Mountain, the parliamentary capital of South Africa is another cosmopolitan port, where all colours, all creeds, are now free to mingle.

My wife Tracy and I walked the main road – Long Street – at 2am on New Year’s night amid the revellers. And despite her alarmingly short evening dress, we only received hearty “Happy New Years” from the teeming masses. It was an evening that capped a very moving return to Africa.

And finally, as I write, I find myself in Johannesburg at the plush Wanderers Protea hotel. Two World Cup stadiums here. Ellis Park, the nation’s historic rugby stadium which can hold 62,000 after recent refurbishment. First used in 1926, the venue where South Africa won the nation-unifying Rugby World Cup in 1995 will host five qualifiers and a quarter-final.

Then, on the other side of the city near the fabled township of Soweto where the seeds of freedom were sown in 1976, we have Soccer City. A crowd of 94,700 will fill the Kalabash-shaped (cauldron-shaped) stadium for the opening game of the World Cup between the hosts and Mexico. It will also be the venue for the final on June 11. What a day that promises to be.

Johannesburg is the most troubled of South Africa’s cities. It’s always been a fascinating hotchpotch, since the Witwatersrand gold rush of the 19th century brought fortune hunters from around the world to the heart of Africa.

Today it is a bustling metropolis, the biggest city in South Africa and still the commercial capital, where it all happens, where the stock exchange keeps this nation ahead of the rest of the continent economically.

There is a third-world fear of crime in the streets here, but only in certain areas, like any major city. I suggest caution, but no need for rampant paranoia.

For four weeks, with thousands of English “Barmy Army” cricket fans, we have traversed the nation, discovering new gems, shrugging off the xenophobia of the European media which suggests we must always be on our guard in post-Apartheid South Africa.

And everywhere the changes wrought in 16 years of democracy are evident. Find me a nation which has developed more than this one since 1993. The 35-mile stretch between Pretoria and Johannesburg has mushroomed beyond belief.

Once there were miles of empty bushveld between the cities. Now Centurion, Midrand and Sandton are joined by thousands of middle class homes, shopping malls and retail outlets. This is boom time, even in a recession.

Rustenburg has grown beyond recognition, as have three further World Cup cities, Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit and Polokwane. Game Parks abound. When the nation changed there were around 60 safari parks. Now there are over 6,000. Take time when you visit, make sure you take a dawn or dusk game drive. You’ll never forget it.

Durban has rebuilt the once-troubled Point Road area south of the city, creating an African paradise called Ushaka, all restaurants, aquariums and shops. At one venue, built in a ship wreck, you eat lobster watched by sharks in a two-storey high glass tank at your elbow.

Up the north coast, tiny villages like Umdhloti and Ballito have become major resorts. Umhlanga offers the biggest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere.

And they’ve got the new runway near La Mercy opening in March, so two airports will ferry the thousands of football fans into the city, from the industrial south and the sugar-cane festooned north.

And in Cape Town, the jewel at the tip of Africa, growth along the waterfront, where former prisoners host boat trips to Nelson Mandela's now-defunct political jail on Robben Island, continues unfettered by the global economic downturn.

In one day, we saw the seals at Hout Bay, the penguins at Boulder Beach and baboons at Cape Point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. We travelled by cable car up the mountain, by funicular railway to the Cape Point lighthouse, by coach around the magnificent Chapman's Peak.

I’ve already been on 702 radio here talking about the upcoming tournament, Africa’s first World Cup. Explaining that so much of what the Rainbow Nation has achieved since 1993 should be considered nearly miraculous. This is the start of my World Cup crusade.

Surprisingly, there is positive feedback - even from the staunch Afrikaners, who had their hard-won political power torn away by the surprise Nelson Mandela/FW De Klerk double act in the early 1990s.

For over 40 years, Apartheid was shoved down the throats of every young white man in South Africa. We are the master race, they were told, at school and in church, at home and at work.

For over 40 years, the indigenous folk were told they were the foreigners here, second class citizens in their own land, at school and in church, at home and at work.

But South Africa today is the Rainbow Nation. A black middle class has emerged from nowhere. Articulate Africans abound, defying years of poorly funded “Bantu Education”. Black and white eat together, worship together, live together. It seems like yesterday they couldn’t even share a bench together.

Over the last month, thousands of English cricket fans and international tourists will have seen what I have witnessed. An African nation emerging as a world force, a colour blind Rainbow Nation capable of miracles.

And soon the world will see it. Every television, every newspaper will focus on Africa’s first World Cup from June 11 to July 11. And I hope they see what we’ve seen.

Labels: Emmanuel Adebayor, England in Rustenburg, Moustapha Salifou, shooting in Angola,

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, 27 November 2009

John 'Influencial' Terry: England captain and marketing tool

"The FIFA 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa are fast approaching. John Terry is available to create effective brand awareness and endorse products and services globally. He has been voted one of the world's most influencial people."
Yes, influencial. Get the spell-checker out. Good old JT. Fluent in English he is. And in case his PR company have missed it, that's INFLUENTIAL mate. Except when it comes to taking penalties against Manchester United in European Cup finals in Moscow. Then he's just effluential.
The Daily Mail makes a huge deal of the selling of England's captain before next year's World Cup today, complaining he's "putting the nation's armband on sale". And they're right. It stinks. The man is on £170,000 a week. At least. A couple of years ago I sneaked a peek at an international star's monthly wage packet at Liverpool. Apart from the basic £82,000-a-week, he was paid all kinds of win bonuses, training bonuses, Champions League bonuses and extras to do with his house, car and sundries. I'm sure Terry gets plenty of that.
Yet here he is, six months before the greatest footballing show on earth, presenting himself as a marketing tool (rather an apt expression in this context) rather than quietly getting on with the job of leading England to the World Cup after 44 years of hurt. Sir Bobby Moore must be turning in his grave.
A company called Riviera Entertainment are behind the campaign (pictured). They were appointed by Elite Management, Terry's agents. Interestingly, Elite Management, to quote their press release "is owned and controlled by John Terry’s long term friends Paul Nicholls and Keith Cousins."
So at least we know it's not just John Terry who's getting millions for being England captain. All his pals are in on the act too.
The bits they don't mention in their puff for big John? His mum Sue was arrested for shoplifting £800 of goods including dog food and flip-flops from Marks & Spencers in March this year. His dad John Snr, was filmed arranging a drug deal by the News of the World earlier this month. The Daily Mail are quick to remind us of both points.
But we don't need to know that. Elite tell me: "Terry is the main face for the Umbro sportswear brand. He has also appeared in adverts for Samsung, Nationwide
and has been the face of King of Shaves. He has a sponsorship deal with football gaming series Pro Evolution Soccer, and appears on the cover of the UK version of ‘Pro Evolution Soccer 6’ with Brazilian international Adriano."
Thanks lads. Let's hope he gets lots more exposure in the build up to the World Cup. He deserves it. And perhaps on Sunday, when Chelsea could end Arsenal's title hopes and take an 11 point lead over the Gunners, he'll be too busy imagining his future riches to stop Eduardo's hat-trick.
We can dream...

Labels: chelsea captain, England storm, John terry captain,

Monday, 23 November 2009

Trott's colours nailed firmly to the England mast

JONATHAN TROTT'S creed, his mantra, may help to explain how he is able to return to Newlands, Cape Town's magnificent cricketing bowl in the shadow of Table Mountain, with such confidence... batting, if you'll pardon the expression, for the other side.
The former Western Province batsman - perhaps we should call him an all-rounder after his performance in the second One-Day International triumph over South Africa on Sunday - plays at his old home ground for the tourists on Friday expressing this philosophy: "I'm always trying to better myself."
So far, Trott (pictured) is successfully treading the path broken so controversially by Pietermaritzburg-born Kevin Pietersen in 2005. And he is bettering himself with every innings
Trott scored 87 at Centurion over the weekend to help Paul Collingwood put England 1-0 up in the five-match ODI series after the opening game at The Wanderers on Friday was monsooned-off.
He also bowled seven overs for 21 runs, earning Ian Botham's heartfelt praise: "As an all-rounder, he was a revelation."
And who can forget his Test debut in the summer when, with KP in hospital and Ricky Ponting on the sledge, he scored 41 and 119 in the final Test at The Oval against Australia to help seal the Ashes for his adopted country? Instant runs, instant confidence at the heart of the storm.
Between those two innings, while he was mysteriously left out of the one-day humiliation against the Aussies, he was accused by former captain Michael Vaughan of celebrating with the South Africans after their Test series win in England last year, a week after being 12th man for the home side.
Nasty stuff which put huge pressure on a tour rookie, but it sold books, I guess.
Ian Jonathan Leonard Trott, who also managed 33 and 51 in the drawn Twenty20 series last week, appears unfazed. He says before Friday's showdown in the town of his birth: "It adds a little edge to it for me. But I'm going to have to put the emotions of coming back here to one side. Everyone wants to play at Lord's and the SCG but for me, I always wanted to come and play back at Newlands and be part of a winning England side."
So South Africans - including coach Mickey Arthur who insists Trott wouldn't make his current top six batters - can now rearrange these words into a commonly used phrase: "Colours, mast, nailed, firmly, the, to."
Promoted to opener in place of Kent's Joe Denly, Warwickshire's Trott, whose father Ian coaches in Leatherhead, nails things down still further, insisting in his still-heavy Seffeffriken accent: "I'm really happy to be sitting here part of an England team which has just won in South Africa.
"It's just the same as when I walked out against Australia in that first Test match. I try not to get too wound up about it. I just try to bring my Warwickshire processes into playing for England. Just like all the other guys in the team, I'm always trying to better myself."
Let's just get the Trott story right. Yes, he went to Rondebosch High on the slopes of Table Mountain. Yes, he attended Stellenbosch University, home of the Afrikaner intellectual and yes, he captained South Africa's Under 19s.
But like so many others in South Africa, he grew up with the knowledge that his grandparents were solidly British. England were not necessarily the enemy. Remember Basil D'Oliveira, Tony Greig, Robin Smith and Allan Lamb had gone there before, not to mention Zola Budd and Gary Bailey, long before KP. It's tough to understand that if you haven't lived over there.
Trott's two early Twenty20s against the West Indies in 2007 didn't go too well but after averaging 90 in the County game last year, he was always going to be the next up once Pietersen had gone down with an Achilles problem and Ravi Bopara had failed one too many times.
Forget Mark Ramprakash and Marcus Trescothick, at 28, Trott had to be the future. Has been ever since he made his debut for the Warwickshire 2nd XI in 2002 and scored 245. A year later he scored 134 on his first team debut. And along the way he grabbed a seven-wicket haul with the seamers the South Africans failed to deal with last Sunday.
Trottsky is likely to be joined the fit-again Pietersen, Matt Prior and Andrew Strauss over the coming weeks. But, like the other three South African-born Englishmen, he has nailed those colours to the mast.
The man who came through the South African schoolboy ranks with currently injured Jacques Kallis, Protea's captain Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs - recalled to the South African side today - and Ashwell Prince leaves no room for doubt: "I won't let any outside emotions affect my decision-making on the field. I'm looking forward to contributing to another win. For England."

Labels: allan lamb, , , ian botham, , , , robin smith, , tony greig, zola budd

Abandoned Henry: I nearly quit playing for France after hand Gaul

Thierry Henry says today he felt “abandoned” by the French Football Federation last week – and insists he nearly quit international football after his blatant handball put the Republic of Ireland out of the 2010 World Cup in Paris last Wednesday.
Henry, whose basketball-style left-handed dribble set up the crucial goal for William Gallas, admitted he handled the ball but insisted: “I am not the referee” as the furore over his apparently deliberately actions raged.
While over 200,000 joined a Facebook petition and arranged a protest march to have the game replayed, Henry twittered it was “the only fair solution” but added: “It’s out of my control.”
And throughout it all, France’s top scorer with 51 goals insists he received no help or advice from French football or FIFA, who both declined the invitation to replay the game, despite the sour taste left by the French play-off triumph.
Henry explained how he and his lawyer issued the statement on Friday in which he said that a replay of the second leg would be the "fair solution” just hours after world FIFA had given a categoric NO.
Barcelona’s former Arsenal favourite Henry, 32, told L’Equipe this morning: "After the game, and even for the next two days, I felt alone, truly alone. It was only after I sent my statement that people from the French federation appeared.
"Despite everything that has happened, the fact of feeling abandoned, I do not let go of (playing for) my country.”
And Henry admits: "Yes, I asked myself the question should I retire from international football
"Without the support of my family, I perhaps would not have made the same decision.
"But I will always fight to the end - even if what just happened will be engraved in history. You can always forgive but you cannot always forget."
As for his apparently guilt-free celebration after the goal, Henry confessed: "I should not have done it. But frankly, it was uncontrollable. After all that had happened... yes, I regret it. That's why right after I spoke with the Irish one by one."
So what, in the light of this do we "hand" it to Thierry for his selfless decision to keep playing for a discredited France in South Africa next year... or do we wonder why he didn't threaten to quit UNLESS the French agreed to a replay. That way, he may just have polished up that tarnished reputation a little.

Labels: , hand gaul, hand of God, , play off petition facebook, play-off, , ,