I didn’t go to a World Cup until Germany four years ago, something that amazes me now. Although if I look back I can generally see why. From 1966 to 1978 I was too young. The next one in Spain in 1982 would have been a great one to go to however, I was seventeen and it was sandwiched between the summer after I’d left school where I’d hitchhiked around France and the year after when I’d partied in Ibiza. A world Cup in Spain seems like just the sort of thing I’d have wanted to do. Maybe my twenty five quid a week YOP Scheme didn’t stretch to it. Mexico in 1986 was too far away and besides I was at college in London, in the middle of a set of exams for a course that I’d rarely attended.
By 1990 I was married with a baby and the prospect of heading off to watch a World Cup was as likely as Bobby Robson actually naming me in the squad itself. I had managed to get myself divorced by the time the next tournament came around in the USA, but as a consequence was pretty skint and with childcare responsibilities. Same as with France 98. By the time of the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea I probably could have afforded to go and could easily have squared it with my kids, but I didn‘t bother. Perhaps I was put off by the reports in the newspapers of expensive flights and travel difficulties. A shame really, as when I visit some of the World Cup stadiums now I can imagine how good it must have been.
So Germany in 2006 was my first tournament and I had a fantastic time. So good that I resolved to go to South Africa and do it all again. I wavered a bit between tournaments, discouraged once again by the media forebodings about expensive flights, lack of accommodation and the near certainty that I would be mugged and murdered before I’d even cleared customs. As tends to happen with me though I bought the tickets on a whim one afternoon and that was that.
This happened about nine months before the tournament was due to start and before the qualifiers were even known. Cape Town was already sold out and so I’d gone for two matches in Johannesburg and one in nearby Rustenburg. My friend Paul, who had been to Germany with me, was happy to come along despite him not really bothering much with football these days.
We flew into Johannesburg on the second day of the competition, the evening of England’s game with the USA. We were staying in Rustenburg, where the match was taking place, but unfortunately weren’t scheduled to land until half time. By the time we got to Rustenburg the match was over and we were just in time for the post mortem, which centred mainly around Rob Green and his inability to prevent the tamest of shots from crossing the line.
We didnt have a match until the Monday, Holland against Denmark in Johannesburg, so on Sunday we decided to go hiking. First though, we had to collect our match tickets. In an attempt to cut down on touting, FIFA had decided not to send out tickets by post, but to make everyone collect them in person in South Africa. You could pick them up at any of the designated collection points and so we got Jan, a South African who worked at our guest house and who had very kindly volunteered to drop us off at the place we planned to hike, to detour to the local mall where the collection point had been set up. Jan told us that the previous day the place had been packed and that he had needed to pull a few strings to avoid a long wait. Hardly surprising I thought, with England and the USA in town. The next game in Rustenburg was one that we were attending, New Zealand v Slovakia in two days time, and somehow I doubted that it would have the same clamour for tickets.
When we got there, the place was empty, apart from security guards and ticket staff. The requirements for picking up your tickets were your passport and the credit card that you had bought them with. I’d brought neither, my passport was back at the guest house and the credit card had expired and been replaced. It didnt matter, my driving licence and the new credit card were sufficient and a couple of minutes later two tickets were printed for each of the Holland v Denmark, New Zealand v Slovakia and Argentina v South Korea games. It all worked very well, although I was grateful that we hadn‘t been trying to collect them the day before.
Jan dropped us off at The Kloof, a national park with a great big ravine in it. We spent a few hours climbing up it, alongside a waterfall and then hiking through the hills and woods around it.
It was a really hot day despite it being the middle of their winter. This being Africa, I was hoping to see some wildlife and wasn’t disappointed. We saw some sort of deer get a bit skittish as we surprised it and then watched a Black Eagle gliding in the valley below us as well as dragonflies and butterflies that looked nothing like the ones at home. It was great to look out onto the plains from the top of The Kloof, it all looked so, well, African. I tried a Tarzan style elephant call, but it didnt have the desired effect.
Having hiked a bit in Korea lately where you often have to queue at busy sections of the paths, it was a pleasure to be away from the crowds. Once we got beyond the bottom of the ravine we didnt see any other walkers. We bumped into a couple of rangers cooling their feet in a stream and another group of them later, presumably on poacher patrol, but that was it.
We got down to the bottom again about four hours later only to discover that the short cut we had taken had meant that we had missed the monkeys that congregate around the regular path. A woman who lived nearby told us that they just come into the houses, raid the fridge and if anyone tries to stop them they are capable of biting your arm clean off. Sounds like my kids I thought, although I doubt that the monkeys put the empty food wrappers back in the fridge.
We caught the end of the Ghana v Serbia game in a bar where we knocked back cans of Castle beer at less than a quid a go before Jan arrived to give us a lift back. The place where we were staying was in the suburbs of Rustenburg and in a stroke of good luck was only about twenty minutes walk from the Fans Park. All we had heard before we came out were warnings about security, but Jan was adamant that it was safe to walk around Rustenburg at night. We took his advice and set off to watch the Germany v Australia game on the big screen.
We walked in the dark through a residential area, noticing just how much colder it had got since the hiking earlier in the day. I doubt that the temperature was much above freezing, although it was a very still night. All of the houses had big fences and gates, most of them topped with barbed wire. The windows and doors tended to have bars on them and most of the houses also had a guard dog and security signs promising everything from shooting to electrocution to anyone considering attempting to pop a Herald and Post through the letterbox.
We rarely saw anyone else walking, so whilst it seemed safe enough, I suspect that most people didnt feel it was advisable. We amused ourselves by barking at the guard dogs, setting off a chain reaction amongst them that probably had a few householders reaching for their elephant guns.
Once at the Fans Park we were searched and were quickly inside. It was a big field, possibly the grounds of a school and about the size of six football pitches. There were numerous food stalls around the perimeter, an enormous and well stocked beer tent and a stage and big screen at one end. The only downside was the lack of people. I’d spent a day at a Fans Park in Munich four years previously and there were thousands there, tens of thousands probably. Tonight though I’d estimate that the crowd was somewhere between two and three hundred. We had a few beers at fifteen rand a pop and watched a very good performance from Germany as they comprehensively beat Australia, before we got lost on the walk back.
Meanwhile, South Korea had beaten Greece in their first game giving them a great chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.It was also reported on the radio that condom sales had gone up fivefold in Korea following the victory. Typical, just when I’m out of town too. I dont think Lee Dong Gook got off the bench, no doubt they were keeping him back for the big game against Argentina on Thursday.
Monday and it was our first game, Holland against Denmark in Johannesburg. We had looked into the transport options and the easiest way of getting there was to hire a car and driver for the day. Bartes turned up at 9am in his 4×4. He was a South African builder who was earning a bit of extra cash by doing driving jobs during the World Cup.
`I’ve just got to drop off the wildebeast head on the roof at a taxidermist first` he said as we got into his car. The place that we drove to was shut, but he was given directions to another before almost reversing over a Yorkshire terrier as he turned his car around. We got there without adding to the carcass count and went inside. There were plenty of stuffed heads on the wall and a variety of works in progress in the barn outside. Bartes tipped out the head from the sack on the roof and told us that it had cost him three thousand rand to shoot it and another three thousand rand to have it stuffed. By the time we got away it was already well after ten o’clock but it would have been the best excuse ever if we had missed the kick off.
We drove on to Johannesburg via the back roads, passing through a couple of townships where the houses were pretty basic. We also passed platinum mines, fields of orange trees and a sign saying `Hijacking Hotspot for next 4km` before we were dropped off at the Park and Ride at noon. It was very well organised, we queued for buses and within half an hour were at the stadium. It didnt take long to get through security and into the ground, although it then took us nearly an hour to find our seats as we were continually directed to our left, eventually performing more than an entire circuit of the stadium at various heights. It was very impressive though once we got to our seats, with a great view despite being in the second to back row.
The game itself was nothing special with Holland beating an unadventurous Denmark team with a couple of scrappy goals.
On the plus side, the vuvuzelas weren’t a big deal, just a background buzz that you didn‘t notice after a while and there were no queues for the thirty rand Budweisers with most people joining the seperate queues for soft drinks. At full time it took an hour to get back to the Park and Ride and then another hour crawling through the traffic to get out of Johannesburg with us finally getting back to Rustenburg just before 7pm.
We nipped out to a local restaurant about fifteen minutes walk away where I had a steak with a snails starter. The snails were enormous, no doubt African snails and not European. They were very nice though, although I suspect that most things in garlic butter are. We had been warned before we went out not to accept a lift from anyone we met in the restaurant bar. Apparently someone had been befriended in there the week before and at the end of the evening had accepted the offer of a lift home only to be robbed at gunpoint once inside the car. We didnt make any new friends though and got safely back on foot.
The next day, Tuesday, meant it was New Zealand against Slovakia at Rustenburg.and it was a much colder day than the previous two. In fact, it seemed like an autumn day in the UK as I got up, with a cold wind blowing the leaves around the garden of the guest house. There were reports on the news of snow blocking remote roads near Cape Town and I watched highlights of Italy v Paraguay from the previous day amid torrential rain.
We got a minibus to the stadium with two New Zealand fans and a Sunderland lad who updated us on the progress of Cattermole and Zenden. He had been to the game at Rustenberg on Saturday evening between England and the USA and he remarked upon how much heavier the traffic had been. Not today though and fifteen minutes later we were at the ground and were straight in. Although the Sunderland fan did have his ambitious attempt to take four bottles of Grolsh into the stadium thwarted by security. FIFA, unlike the miserable gits at UEFA, are fine with you drinking in the ground, even at your seat, but they draw the line at you bringing in your own supplies.
Whilst the Soccer City stadium that we had been to in Johannesburg had been built specifically for the World Cup, the Rustenburg ground was about forty years old. It hadn‘t been updated much by the look of it and there were no electronic turnstiles, just people removing the stubs after you had been checked by security. We had a couple of Budweisers at thirty rand each, which whilst three times the price of the beers we had drank in the bar at The Kloof still weren‘t too bad value at less than three quid each.
There seemed to be a lot more New Zealanders at the game than Slovakians, although perhaps they were just a bit more noticable. Taking advantage of the lack of queues we had a couple more beers and went up to our seats ten minutes before kick off. We had a good position again, near the halfway line in the upper tier. It was an oval stadium with a capacity of about forty thousand, mainly open air with just the stand opposite to us having a roof. There was a running track around the pitch and a backdrop of hills in most directions.
It was only about half full though at kick off, which is disappointing in a World Cup. I’d seen transport issues blamed for empty seats at other games, but doubted that could be the case here. At half time it was still scoreless and we nipped down for a couple more beers to ward off the cold. We met the Sunderland lad again and he told us that the gates had been opened after twenty minutes to let locals in for free and this was helping to get rid of the empty spaces. They all got a food and drink voucher too. A nice gesture from whoever made the decision.
Slovakia took the lead just after the restart and looked to be well in control. The New Zealand fans kept behind their team all the way through though, singing `Super Chrissy Killen` even after he had been subbed.
In the dying moments New Zealand committed a few more people forward and snatched an equaliser causing wild celebrations amongst the fans near us. At the final whistle we came out to somehow find our van just outside of the turnstile with no other vehicle anywhere near. I felt like Sepp Blatter as we drove through the rest of the walking fans making their way back to the car parks and within fifteen minutes we were warming up in a bar watching the Ivory Coast take on Portugal.
We didn‘t have a game on the Wednesday and so had fixed up a trip to a game reserve. Or rather two game reserves. At the first one we went for a walk accompanied by a couple of guides, one of them armed with a stick. He had given us the safety talk before we went inside which pretty much consisted of do what he said and if a rhino charged towards us climb up the nearest tree as quick as we could. I dont think he needed to mention the `quickly` bit. Anyway we saw quite a few animals including impala, kutu and wildebeast. We were just on the way out when we spotted a couple of white rhinos, no more than about sixty yards away. I picked my tree just in case and we watched them for a few minutes before quietly moving on.
In the afternoon we went into the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. This one you stayed in your car and we saw just about everything but lions and leopards.
We spent about four hours being driven around by Morgan who must have thought that it was one of his better driving jobs.
In the evening we thought that we would have another trip to the Fans Park. It was much busier this time as South Africa were playing Uruguay and there must have been a couple of thousand people there. The vuvuzelas were particularly noisy as you got a double dose from the sound on the big screen match and also the people in the crowd. We had a go with them and it takes a fair effort to get a noise out of them.
We got talking to a couple of South African lads who were very keen for us to leave the park with them, either to see their car or to see their house, or to go to a bar. It was one reason after another and seemed a bit suspicious. They wouldn‘t sod off until a girl who seemed to have taken a fancy to me told them that I was going home with her. That did the trick. Unfortunately Paul was a bit worried that she was in on it with them and persuaded me that it was wise for us to leg it while she went for a piss. Anyway, we weren‘t missing much, the crowd was pretty subdued with South Africa getting beat and we saw the last two Uruguay goals back at the guest house.
The next day we had our final live game, Argentina versus South Korea, back at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. Without the need to drop off a wildebeast head this time we got there a bit earlier and our previous visit meant that it didn‘t take us nearly an hour to find our seats this time. So we had a few beers and watched the Korean fans taking group photos and just about half the stadium wearing the blue and white stripes of what was for many a temporarily adopted nation. I had a tub of what looked like ice cream but was actually warm mash and gravy. Brilliant. It should be the next innovation at the Riverside.
We were on the other side of the stadium this time, still in the upper tier but lower down. Great seats. I was sat next to a fella from Honduras who was telling me how wonderful the Premier League was, not because of the big four, but because of the standard of the games between the clubs at the bottom. I don‘t have the foggiest about the Honduras league. In fact I dont really know anything about Honduras, so it was a bit of a one sided conversation.
It was a good game, with South Korea showing a lot more ambition against better opponents than Denmark had done against Holland earlier in the week. There were still a lot of empty seats though, possibly up to ten thousand and I’d noticed a lot of touting outside as people struggled to offload tickets. You know the score, two early goals for Argentina, Korea pulling one back just before half time and Argentina sealing it a couple more in the second half.
Lee Dong Gook made an appearance as expected, his first at a World Cup since 1998, but he didn‘t manage to get on the scoresheet. The Park and Ride was a bit slower this time on the way out, but it still worked well enough and we were back in Rustenburg by about 7pm.
Friday brought a change of scenery. We had told Carien, who owned the guest house where we were staying, that we fancied doing a bit more hiking and so she had arranged for us to stay at her Uncle’s farm, about an hour away and on the road to Botswana. They called it a farm, but it seems more like a game reserve to me. They have it stocked with a variety of animals, giraffe, zebra, wildebeast, lots of different types of antelopes and then stuff like warthogs. They make their money through tourism with visitors paying to stay there, some of them going on viewing tours and some of them shooting the animals.
I dont think thay got many hikers as they seemed a bit surprised that we wanted to just wander off without a vehicle and they gave us a walkie talkie so that we could get in touch if a leopard or something gave us a bit of a nip. We walked for a few hours, straying off the paths and were rewarded with sightings of giraffe and wildebeast.
When we returned mid afternoon, we were soon back out again, this time in a truck. I had decided that since I was there I might as well have a try at hunting. The plan was for me to shoot an impala, which is some sort of gazelle. Or a bit like Bambi, as Paul thoughtfully pointed out. I didnt see it as a problem, they are bred or bought in to be hunted and the meat is eaten. It’s not as if I’m taking pot shots at pet pugs for a laugh. They took me to somewhere quiet and got me to take a practice shot with the rifle, just to make sure that I wasn‘t likely to pop a cap in the ass of a ranger by mistake. I got within an inch of the centre of the target from about twenty metres, which was deemed acceptable and so we set off.
I must admit, I got a bit of a kick from riding around in the back of a truck with a loaded rifle in my hand. It took a tremendous effort to resist shooting anything I saw, from small birds to the truck’s tyres. After a couple of hours we found some impalas and one was pointed out to me. It was only about twenty metres away and I was told to go for a head shot. Problem was, a moving target wasn‘t as easy as the cardboard square that I’d hit earlier and I missed. The impala’s scattered and we didnt find any more. We did see more giraffe, zebras and kutu though and quite close up this time.
It was back to the lodge for a barbecue and the second England game on the telly. I fell asleep and missed most of it, although I was later told that wasn‘t necessarily a bad thing.
Next morning and I was back out in the truck again, this time without Paul who had got a bit bored with my previous days birdscaring efforts. We didnt find any impala, despite at one point leaving the truck and creeping through the woods. Walking with a rifle I felt like I was in the credits from Dad’s Army. As time went on it became obvious that we weren‘t going to find any impala. I was told that as there were some blessbok nearby though and it would be ok to shoot one of those instead despite a blessbok being a larger and more valuable animal. It didn‘t take us long to locate a few of them, on a hill about a hundred metres away. One of them was pointed out to me and I was told to aim for the heart, with a shot that would enter just under the front armpit. If blessboks have armpits that is.
This time it stood still and I brought it down with a shot that missed the armpit and hit it in the neck instead. Thats about a foot from where I intended, not too bad from a distance of a hundred metres away I thought. We drove towards it and then approached by foot. It wasn‘t dead when we got there but its life was quickly ebbing away as the blood flowed from the two neck wounds. By the time I posed for photos it was unconscious with an occasional twitch of its legs.
I had mixed feelings about killing it. There was still a sense of exhilaration from shooting the rifle and a sense of relief that after having driven around for six hours I hadn’t ended up with nothing more than the previous days missed shot to show for it. But it was quite sad in a way too. Despite the animals being bred for hunting and their meat, I’d still ended its life early at about five years old. Whose to say that if I hadnt turned up it wouldn‘t have had offspring, or had the benefit of another couple of years wandering about in the countryside? In hindsight I dont think I would do it again.
As we dropped it off at the butchery twenty minutes later, I gave it a pat, pretty much as you would a dog, and it was still warm. It will live on in a way though as I’ve arranged to have its head stuffed and shipped on to me so that I can hang it in the hall and use it as a hatstand.
And that was the World Cup. We’d only been there for a week but had managed to pack a fair bit into the time. It was as good an experience as Germany four years previously had been which was something that I didnt think would be possible. For those of you interested in Lee Dong Gook, he got onto the pitch again against Uruguay in the last sixteen game that saw South Korea eliminated. No doubt causing the rise in condom sales in Korea to be reversed.
Roll on Brazil in 2014.