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Notes from South Africa

[Editor’s Note: Anders Wollek will be providing coverage from South Africa throughout the Confederations Cup. This is real, people.]

There is no easy way to get to South Africa. No matter how you slice it, it’s a difficult journey. When I boarded the plane, my immediate dilemma revolved around my plan of attack to combat jet lag – would I sleep at the beginning of the flight? Stay up all night before getting on the plane? Try to power through for the first 10 hours and sleep for the last five? In the end, any such planning for a flight like that is futile. I elected for the ad hoc method of sleeping at any point I could, ultimately ensuring I stumbled off the plane still in a daze induced by red wine, Klipdrift and muscle relaxants.

O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg had ostensibly undergone some renovations since I last saw it in 2007. It was hard to tell, especially from the outside where construction is still ongoing. Confederations Cup signage and LOC volunteers adorned in official track suits pervaded the terminal. As I walked through to locate my bag, it became clear that the tournament set to begin next week was not the biggest sporting event on incoming travelers’ minds.

The British & Irish Lions Rugby team is touring South Africa, playing a series of matches against local club sides before facing the South Africa three times in the coming few weeks. Apparently 40,000 are making their way from the UK to catch part of the tour. At the airport, the empty Confederations Cup Fan Information tables looked lonely as rugby fans streamed through the baggage claim and out into the chilly Jo’burg morning.

It’s still a few days out from the beginning of the tournament, but the situation at the airport probably won’t change too much. Somebody told me that 70 percent of the tickets have been sold for the Confederations Cup, 95 percent of which are local. People aren’t traveling for this tournament, but that does not mean they won’t be paying attention.

The Confederations Cup generally gets some mild attention and there are usually pretty good teams playing games at a time when there’s not much else to watch as international soccer goes. This year should be different, but not because of the football. While the field should produce some interesting games – particularly in the brutal Group B –¬† people will be paying attention to this tournament to see how South Africa handles it. It’s a World Cup tuneup in every sense, with more pressure on the host country than any team on the field. It’s an international soccer tournament where soccer is not the biggest story line.

A day after I arrived, I headed to an international friendly between New Zealand and Italy. It was the teams’ final tune-up before opening the tournament against Spain and the United States, respectively. The match was played at Super Stadium in Atteridgeville. It was a miserable night; cold and pissing down rain. As I arrived it looked like not many people had braved the weather conditions to see the game. After all, it was about as meaningless as friendlies can be, especially when you saw the team Italy trotted out there.

When Marcello Lippi sends out a team at Loftus Versfeld on Monday, it could contain as many as eight different names. So the game against the Kiwis wasn’t exactly a dress rehearsal for the Azzurri. In reality Italy probably knew that other teams would be watching and, as I read later at U.S. Soccer’s Twitter page, it turned out they were.

So a meaningless game on a rainy, cold night. Not too exciting. In fact the biggest form of entertainment came right after the kickoff, when a number of fans streamed in through the gates and headed up to the VIP section. I’m not sure why these fans were late, but they all had rudimentary stickers reading “VIP” and swarmed up onto the cold terrace during the first 10 minutes. I wanted to see the lineup sheet so at halftime I snuck into the press box, or outdoor-press-bench as it was. It took a little determination, but nothing out of the ordinary. I’d expect tougher security at the actual Confederations Cup games.

In the end the crowd wasn’t too bad. Italy had a pretty good following, as usual, and some guy kept waving his giant Italian flag with little regard for my face. The soccer on display was awful. Italy, who won 4-3, never bothered to move out of first gear. Backup Italian goalkeeper Marco Amelia put in a truly pathetic display between the posts, forcing his teammates to half-heartedly come from behind three times (if that is even possible) in order to get the win.

When I was here last, the enthusiasm of the locals was infectious and things haven’t changed much in that regard. It’s easy to get frustrated in this country, when matters, however minor, don’t go to plan. It happens often, but you have to take it in stride or risk getting fed up and being miserable. At least one thing that you can always rely on is the nice attitude of the people.

I asked a few about the tournament and while everybody was unanimously looking forward to opening day, when South Africa takes on Iraq from Ellis Park, they were equally skeptical of their own team’s chances. The struggles of Bafana Bafana have been well documented, from the protracted Benni McCarthy saga to the recent dispute concerning players’ wages. The nation’s most popular team has a lot to play for and Friday’s headline on the back page of Pretoria News said “Bafana Must Restore Lost Pride.”

One man I asked just shook his head. He refused to give a prediction for South Africa in the Confederations Cup, but would say that he agreed with McCarthy, who is the nation’s all-time leading scorer, being dropped. “He’s a star player but he wants to pick and choose his games. We don’t need his type.”

“Maybe this will teach him a lesson,” he added with a tinge of hopefulness. Its doubtful that the whole dispute is at its end is anyway.

The feelings of doubt aren’t extended to the actual running of the tournament and the people I spoke to state unequivocally that the country is ready. “We’ve had the Rugby World Cup, the Cricket World Cup and just this year the IPL,” said one woman. She also said that the feeling that South Africa isn’t prepared to host a tournament like this (or the one in a year) is solely perpetuated by people who are on the outside looking in. “This is not just about South Africa but about our whole continent,” she told me. “It will be a great event.”

As we move towards opening day of the tournament, it is clear the excitement, at least within the country, is building. So while those tables at the airport won’t be getting much traffic, at least people will care about the Confed Cup from within South Africa. And regardless of what the locals say, there will probably still be that skepticism from those following the tournament on their televisions around the world.


Notes from South Africa

by Anders Wollek · June 13, 2009

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