Seattle Times readers are headed to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. Follow them as they send dispatches from the matches they attend as well as notes on their experiences traveling in the country. Get to know the World Cup community bloggers.
Arriving for Round of 16
After getting 1.5 hours of sleep on Wednesday night (6/23, which also happens to be our 16th wedding anniversary) we left the house at 4:30 a.m. to catch our flight to Atlanta. Getting everything together for the Loskop Mini World Cup we are running here in South Africa felt like we were preparing for an Everest expedition. Dianne had three very large plastic shipping crates, which we filled with items for the mini cup (thanks to Soccer West for the great discount on the World Cup balls and practice vests!).
It was a relief to finally get on the plane and not have to do anything. To make things even better, our Delta flight had T.V. screens on the back of every headrest with live (and free!) access to ESPN and ESPN2. I have to give credit to my 11-year-old son Kekoa — it took him about five minutes after take off to figure this out and have the Italy vs. Slovakia and New Zealand vs. Paraguay games on adjoining headrests. Within a few minutes, almost all the passengers in Kekoa’s section were watching World Cup soccer! It felt so good to kick back and watch two games at the same time with nothing to do. We were pulling for a Netherlands vs. Italy Round of 16 game, as we have tickets for both R16 games that Groups E and F roll into, but Italy failed to hold up its end of the bargain. Netherlands vs. Slovakia and Paraguay vs. Japan: I guess these pairings are proof as to why they need to play the games to determine the champions.
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The first leg of the flight from Seattle to Atlanta went pretty quickly. Before we knew it, we were off on our 17-hour direct flight from Atlanta to Jo-burg. The three boys were fantastic the entire way, with all of us pretty much alternating between being up for two hours and sleeping for two hours. Unfortunately the live T.V. feature was not enabled, so we missed the Portugal vs. Brazil game — the sacrifices one has to make when traveling to the World Cup!
We landed just a little late and sailed through customs and baggage claim. Then there was the big moment — getting our tickets from the FIFA kiosk at the airport. The whole ticket process is a bit nerve wracking, as we obtained (and paid for) most of our tickets in the initial FIFA lottery in March of 2009. Do they send the winners the tickets they paid for? No! You have to pick them up in South Africa by inserting your credit card into a machine. So, we spent thousands of dollars over a year ago, find the kiosks in the airport, and stick our cards in. The machines indicate they are “having difficulty” reading my card and Brian’s card (Dianne’s went through right away). After a tense minute or two of repeatedly putting our cards in different machines: Bang! our games pop up on the screen and start printing out, including the seven USA vs. Ghana R16 tickets I snagged on the FIFA website at 12:30 a.m. in the morning on Thursday, just a few hours before leaving for SeaTac.
The rental car was another matter: Avis was really slow in processing us, the real trick was getting 10 pieces of luggage (including the three large tournament crates) and seven people into two Toyota Corollas. OK, the trickiest part was driving the full ten minutes from the airport to the Airport Inn Bed and Breakfast. Driving on the right hand side of the road is much worse than we thought it would be, and we were thinking it would be pretty bad. After windsheild wipers turning on and off ten times or so (instead of the turn signals), driving on the wrong side of the road (multiple times), and locking the breaks on the highway, we were there.
Brazil fans gear up for Portugal match
PHOTO COURTESY OLUFEMI KALEJAIYE
A World Cup well done
Overall, South Africa has done very well with this World Cup from what I have seen. In the games and places I visited, none of the expected problems (petty crime, strikes, lack of organization, etc.) materialized or had any real impact. I never once felt unsafe or threatened — and I have felt unsafe before in South Africa.
I also think it’s safe to say that the World Cup cut across economic lines (and perhaps racial lines) in South Africa in a unique way. Every gleaming office building was showing World Cup fever, and every township slum road stand was doing the same. I am not sure this happens every day in a place where the economic divide between rich and poor is so extreme.
After my final game of the World Cup (USA vs. Slovenia on Friday), I went to Sun City and Pilanesberg National Park for the weekend before flying out. In previous visits to South Africa, I had never visited Sun City or the adjacent Pilanesberg, so when my company proposed an outing there, I happily said yes (it’s about a three-hour drive from Joburg). Sun City is all excess; fake waterfalls, giant hotels and casinos, etc. but it’s old enough that it feels “grown in” somehow. I would take my family there for a weekend to play in the waterslides and enjoy the scenery.
Pilanesberg is a large game reserve with real predators and prey. It’s not a zoo — although I think a lot of confused tourists do not know that; at the store in the center of the park I heard some Honduran visitors debating what was fed to the animals. The public can drive their cars right into the reserve and go on a private safari. Or you can sign up and pay for game drives with rangers. For me, it felt a lot like Yellowstone but with zebras and giraffes instead of buffalo and elk. The park is beautiful and full of game but it was extremely crowded. I would go again for a day or two but would not make that a primary safari on a future trip; for that I would return to Kruger Park or one of the adjacent reserves like Sabi Sand where access is more tightly controlled.
Leaving South Africa today (to spend a few days doing work in Europe), I was struck by all the nationalities leaving the country — just as I was struck by all the nationalities coming into the country. And, everywhere you looked, each backpack, suitcase, and rolling bag had a vuvuzela attached. You can expect to hear them in your home town next!
Kruger National Park safari
Our group was picked up at 5:30 a.m. for our day trip to Kruger Park. After a one-and-a-half-hour drive in an open-air safari safe vehicle, we made it to the park. Our extremely capable guide, Will, prepped us for the day’s events, which included combing through the paths of the park and a catered picnic lunch. Thinking we would be covering the whole park, we were reminded that Kruger is the size of Israel and we would be only seeing a smidge of the whole park, as our tour ended at 5 p.m. The goal of the trip is to see the “Big 5″ animals: elephants, buffalos, lions, leopards and rhinos. Our tour decided to create the “Mediocre 5,” which included monkeys, giraffes, crocodile, warthogs and wildebeest — just in case we didn’t see the big ticket items.
The tour did not disappoint. We started with seeing a herd of impala and stopped for photographs. At our previous park, this was a good find. Will basically waved us off, stating we would occasionally stop for impalas but since they are plentiful, we should focus on the larger animals. A few moments later, we came across an elephant that crossed the driving path five feet behind our vehicle, followed fifteen minutes later by a giraffe that did the same crossing. Both animals posed for a few photos before lumbering off into the woods. Simply amazing!
PHOTO COURTESY DOUG HAINES
We spotted a few water buffalo from 100 yards or so away, which became 25 yards away when the rest of the herd made it over the hill. They were all heading our way until their alpha male raised his head and noticed our vehicle (not sure if it was by sight or smell). The male then changed their grazing path to avoid contact with us as we clicked photos at a maddening pace. This pattern continued for the next several hours: searching for large animals, learning about the unusual plants, seeing occasional crocodile, wildebeest, giraffes, elephants, various birds &mdash and many, many impalas.
After lunch, we came across the most impressive animal to me: the rhino. We saw three rhino over a period of two hours, all a bit away from the road. Even with not getting too close to them, their size and overall look is extremely impressive. We all thought we had first spotted younger elephants until they turned to show their front tusk. We just don’t see these rumbling around in the Northwest, so it was very special to see them in their natural habitat.
Near the end of the tour we hit our last of the “Big 5″: the lion! We came across two male lions relaxing in the brush approximately 25 feet from the gravel road. Both were extremely camouflaged but our guide was able to get us a good spot to view. The lions are apparently not too concerned with the vehicles, as they barely looked our way. That all changed when our guide opened his door and started rustling his foot in the nearby bush, which quickly received a more alert look from the lion, which probably thought Christmas was coming early with a camera happy tourist coming to get a closer look. It was a very quick and simple message: even though a lion doesn’t look too interested in our van, he is called the King of the Jungle for a reason.
We took a quick team photo at the exit gate and then it was off to downtown Nelspruit for dinner and to watch the Spain vs. Honduras game. What a memorable day!
USA vs. Slovenia: A tale of two halves
On Friday we went to the USA vs. Slovenia match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The atmosphere actually rivaled that of the South Africa matches: high energy, outlandish costumes, and a stadium that was full 60 minutes before the match.
The South Africans attending the match seemed to have adopted the USA team, perhaps because of the trouble we gave England last week — or perhaps because they like the way the team plays: full of energy, recklessness and determination. This is different from other major sporting events in other countries because the USA is typically the team the locals want to see lose presumably because we have won everything enough. But, as long as we are soccer underdogs, I think we will get some local support.
PHOTO COURTESY JOHN CASE
Aside from Mardi Gras and Halloween, the World Cup might be the only excuse for everyone to dress in the most outlandish ways possible. Where else can you wear a jersey, tie a flag on your back, paint your face, and carry a horn and somehow look conservative? We saw three astronauts, at least 10 Uncle Sams and two Elvises. We saw red hair, blue hair and red-white-and-blue hair. And, the Slovenians were actually well-represented for a country of only a few million people.
The game itself was another reminder of team USA’s flaws (weakness in possession, giveaways in midfield, spotty marking) and strengths (attitude, ability to generate chances). Despite all the hubbub about being “robbed” by the referee, the USA got what it deserved. Clearly the better team, they let a few mistakes cost them a better result and possibly a second round birth.
But, it’s still there for the taking on Wednesday which is what you hope for from the final group game. A win means team USA is guaranteed to go through and could even be first place in the group. A tie means they still have a good chance so long as England keeps playing the way they are playing. Germany or perhaps Ghana await.
What bumps in the night
Saturday was our travel day. We went from Joburg to a home near Nelspruit to be closer to Kruger Park and for games being played at the stadium in Nelspruit. The home we rented was actually a large farmhouse that was a five-mile drive from the freeway on a small dirt road that had enough bumps to challenge any vehicle, much less a family fan. After reaching the home, we learned that we had truly rented a home to get away from it all.
Our host gave us a quick rundown on the history of the home, the security features (night guard, alarm, keys) the lack of T.V. and internet, and how to utilize the walking sticks to shoo off any baboons, lizards and — oh yeah — the slightly hibernating black mamba’s that may or may not be by the bamboo trees. After that news bulletin, most of us jumped back into the car to get groceries and to discuss our shooing skills.
When we awoke in the morning, we realized why we rented this home: the views of the mountains and the plantation-size avocado fields more than made up for any creature discomforts. We spent the morning on the deck taking in the sun and views — and I’m still working on my walking stick skills.
Mozambique road trip
Our road trip through Mozambique was nothing but exciting. It included some roatrip staples: sustaining ourselves with nothing but Doritos and candy, a pretty scary run-in with police, and nearly running out of gas several times. Mozambique also added a little extra flair with 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) of washed-out, mud-covered highway and without a doubt the scariest ghost town I’ve ever seen (ghost town not in the sense of being abandoned — but in the sense of being filled with ghosts).
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The trip was awesome though! Africa is great for pushing you outside your standard comfort zone and teaching you to relax and go with the flow.
Highlights of the trip:
Diving in the Indian Ocean (though I did get seasick and throw up 50 feet under the sea — a pretty terrifying experience.
In Maputo, I had the finest prawn-based meal of my life.
Sitting on a deserted beach in rural Mozambique looking up at a sky that was absolutely filled with stars.
As for the World Cup it was clear the Mozambique had caught the fever. There were Portuguese and Brazilian flags flying proudly from the capital of Maputo to the rural beach towns near Inhabane (Mozambique was once a Portuguese colony, as was Brazil).
Every night we find our way to the local bars and watch the late game with enthusiastic local football fans. It seemed Brazil was the overwhelming local favorite, but even the locals got behind that gutsy performance by North Korea.
After five days in Mozambique, we were back home in South Africa and ready to head into Jo-burg for our first game (USA vs. Slovenia).
PHOTO COURTESY COREY JOHNSON
The vuvuzela: It’s for tourists
Much has been written (even on these pages) about the vuvuzela madness and how some feel it is “ruining” the World Cup viewing atmosphere. But, the most ironic thing about that is that while the locals are certainly vuvuzela fans, it’s very obvious at the games that all the visitors to the country have taken this to a new level. The fan shops at the games can’t keep them in stock. Every fan you see wearing a national team jersey other than South Africa’s is toting one or multiple vuvuzelas. Yes, it does limit the singing and chanting that fans can do but clearly they are enjoying themselves.
Whistling at an opponent or referee in games in Europe or South America is just as annoying as the vuvuzela — at least the horns have some musical tone to them.
My belief is that once the tourists have been here for a while the noise will die down and the singing will come back (this already seemed to be happening at the Argentina game yesterday). If not, embrace the uniqueness of the African soccer experience and enjoy the vuvuzela.
South Africa has eyes for World Cup only
Pity the American sports fan living abroad.
Having now been in South Africa for exactly one week, it seems we’ve been years removed from the stateside sports scene. Rumor has it a few college conferences decided to play some twisted version of “fantasy commissioner” and swap teams around like you would players in a rotisserie baseball league amongst your friends. And then there was the surely fabricated report that my hometown Kansas City Royals were awarded an all-star game by sympathy vote, a charitable commissioner, or divine intervention. So while America was awash in the allure of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and the drama of an NBA finals going to game 7 last night, we Yankees here in South Africa were relegated to waking up to the news of L.A.’s latest addition to its trophy case.
But you wouldn’t know that news by turning on the morning sports station or opening the local sports section. South African media is in blanket World Cup mode — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of the nine channels we get in our hotel room, six of them have shown nothing but soccer matches since we arrived. Missed a match while on a safari? Fear not! It will be replayed at least four or five more times in the days thereafter. Similarly, readers of South African newspapers could be forgiven for thinking the whole world has come to a halt for the 2010 World Cup, especially on days when the country’s beloved Bafana Bafana play. An occasional rugby report may sneak in a few inches, but good luck getting that U.S. Open leaderboard, even in a country that has produced the likes of Ernie Els and Gary Player.
Alas, all that is an afterthought today: It’s USA gameday. American flags are flying in the morning Johannesburg wind and fellow U.S. fans are flocking to popular pregame places in preparation for the match. Though we’re hopelessly out of touch with ESPN, their marketing motto comes to mind: one game changes everything. This could be the match of the group stage that determines the U.S. National Team’s fate.
And for once, we won’t be the ones changing our sleep schedules to see an American sporting event live. Wake up, America. We’ve got a World Cup to win.
Bafana Bafana disappoints, but atmosphere does not
There is nothing like watching a World Cup match featuring the host nation in a passionate country. South Africa is absolutely mad for soccer and the World Cup; it’s a national obsession, undoubtedly amplified by the event — but the fans are serious about their soccer. Every radio program, newspaper and T.V. show repeatedly asked: “Can they do it?” (meaning, can South Africa beat Uruguay?). Every road sign, street light, and store front has soccer signs or displays on it. Leading up to the game, the buzz was tremendous.
This was magnified by the fact that the game was being played on a national holiday in South Africa (June 16), which is called “Youth Day.” It’s an anniversary of race riots in Soweto that were a major part of the end of apartheid. If you ever end up in Johannesburg, the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto is named for one of the children killed that day and is a fascinating place to learn about the history of apartheid and the black resistance in the townships.
In the stadium itself, the atmosphere was absolutely electric for 2-3 hours before the game. Outrageous costumes, vuvuzelas, cheering, flags, and even a smattering of Uruguay fans. The din was enormous, except for the national anthems where the entire stadium sang in unison. Immediately following the song, the vuvuzelas erupted again.
Unfortunately, the vuvuzelas were mostly silenced after the first Uruguay goal and then were definitively silenced after the second and the third. Uruguay outclassed and outplayed South Africa with a combination of sturdy interior defense, two outstanding forwards, and some convincing acting with the referee. But the game was always Uruguay’s; South Africa did not generate a serious scoring chance the entire game.
For a nation obsessed with not only soccer and it’s heroes but with showing the world they are a first-class country and soccer team, the 3-0 loss to Uruguay was a major step back and it’s almost a guarantee that South Africa will become the first World Cup host nation to not qualify for the second round of the competition. In the day since the game, blame has been everywhere. The coach, players, fans, organizing committee, etc. are all taking heat, which is fair, but the reality is that they were beaten by a better side who was facing a tiny fraction of the pressure that they felt. Still, great theater and people-watching.