Monday, 31 May 2010
Saturday, 29 May 2010
ENGLAND will have to set a precedent and deny a president on June 12 when they open their World Cup campaign against the United States.
Famously beaten 1-0 by the baseball-crazy Americans at the 1950 World Cup in Belo Horizonte in their only previous competitive encounter, today a certain Mr Barack Obama came out fighting for the Yanks.
Ranked at eight in the latest FIFA list, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Co should have the edge this time over the team in 14th place, but I guess Bill Wright, Stan Mortenson and Co were saying that 60 years ago.
Today President Obama told his men on their departure for Irene Lodge, two miles from where I’m based in Centurion: “I just want to say how incredibly proud we are of the team. Everybody’s going to be rooting for you.
“Althought sometimes we don’t remember here in the US, this is going to be the biggest world stage there is. You’re going to be representing all of us. We’re incredibly proud of what you’ve done already, we are going to be proud of what you do when you get to South Africa.
“And somebody in the Oval Office will be watching ESPN to make sure things are going okay. You’ve got a wonderful supporter in Bill Clinton, he‘s helped make sure this team gets all the support it needs.
“The vice-president is going to see you live, I tried to volunteer but they wouldn’t let me!”
I’m sure newly nearly-elected Prime Minister David Cameron will be saying something similar next Tuesday when England depart... but somehow it doesn’t quite have the same gravitas.
And then you’ve got Alexi Lalas, the hairiest man ever to play for the US, saying this after helping his side upset England in a friendly back in 1993: "The US is in a great position. They play the underdog role very well and, while some might see it as a shock if they win, I don't think it should be.
"England are not as good as they think they are and the US are better than some people give them credit for.
"This is the easiest group the US have ever been in and it would be a complete failure if they didn't qualify."
Friday, 28 May 2010
Thursday, 27 May 2010
ENGLAND’S World Cup base is ready and waiting for Fabio Capello’s Lions – a week before the 23-man squad is due to land in South Africa.
Despite headlines just three months ago in the British tabloids suggesting the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus was “a dump” and “a building site”, the Platinum-rich local tribe have produced, in less than two years, a high-altitude training camp fit for a king.
That’s King Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi, the 36th recorded monarch of the Bafokeng people. No African tribe offers a stronger lineage. The unmarried 41-year-old’s visionary “Grand Plan” does not stop with a five-star hotel, state-of-the-art-and-beyond gymnasium and the only FIFA Grade 1 rated training pitch in the country, it goes way beyond that, to a dream state which will come to fruition around 2035.
But for now, England and the Football Association should rejoice. They gambled on the tribe who fought to gain their own shares in the local platinum mines... and won. I last visited the site in January during the England cricket tour. When the British press turned up en-masse six weeks later, they slaughtered the place.
But I said exclusively in the Daily Express then that King Leruo would not let them down. I hate to say I told you so but, blimey, you’ve got to see this place to believe it.
Quite how England managed to get drawn in Group C, with their first game on June 12 played two miles down the road at the nearby Royal Bafokeng Stadium against the US (and they return there for their first knock-out game if they top the group on ), we shall never know.
But one thing is for certain. If England don’t win the World Cup after the clichéd 44 years of hurt, they won’t be able to blame the preparation.
Martin Bekker, the amiable Chief Executive of the Royal Marang hotel in the grounds of the campus, took me on a fascinating tour. As I arrived he sent me a jokey text saying: “I’ve cleared all the snakes personally”, a reference to yet anothing knocking story in The Sun this week, suggesting England were under threat from deadly serpents. As it happens, it’s winter. They’re hibernating. And they’re no threat anyway.
As we drove in, the staff were shouting “I feel it”, as World Cup fever spread among the works. Here are just some of the major points of interest:
1 The “typical five star” bedrooms are fitted with sensors which automatically turn on a night light when a player gets out of bed.
2 Televisions in the rooms are linked to a network allowing Fabio Capello to communicate with his players even while they are watching a re-run of Eastenders.
3 The gym offers facilities far beyond anything on offer elsewhere in Africa – including a rehabilitation pool with an underwater window for the physiotherapist to monitor his injured patient.
4 The two main training pitches boast exactly the same kikuyu-rye surface as the nearby Royal Bafokeng Stadium and earned a FIFA Grade A rating on May 5. It’s like playing on a carpet. I tried it. Much better than Wembley, and I’ve played on both.
5 At 1,300m the high-altitude, totally secure facility is already gaining the attention of foreign rugby, cricket, athletics and football teams eager to produce a squad of supermen at sea-level.
Look, I’m not pooh-poohing the other wonderful training bases I’ve had access to, but here England have – with shrewd judgement – ended up with the perfect World Cup hosts. Their base goes way beyond anything on offer elsewhere.
While the Germans languish at the luxury Velmore Estate 60 miles to the east in Erasmia, their training pitch looks like something from Hackney Marshes in mid-winter. They only started work on the field in January.
The Italians at Leriba Lodge in Centurion have to decamp to the nearby Southdown College to find a field to play on, while the Americans in nearby Irene Country Lodge have no obvious gym facilities and their training pitch is even further away.
The Dutch, Australians, New Zealanders and Brazilians all find themselves in non-purpose-built facilities with training pitches at local schools some miles away. Even the hosts, South Africa, have to share the Wits University grounds with the Dutch.
Only Argentina, based at Pretoria University’s High Performance Centre, can boast anything approaching the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus. And Diego Maradona has had to have special toilets installed to ensure his comfort. The Spanish, at Potchefstroom University, are probably in third place with their training camp, used by South Africa’s cricketers.
Bekker, an old boy from the local St Stithians College public school in Johannesburg, has become an honorary member of the Bafokeng tribe. His brief history of the people is stunning. From their roots as a displaced Nguni clan 800 years ago, the current monarch’s ancestors have always been innovative standard bearers for the African folk.
The first indigenous people to own their own land, the cultivated German missionaries and dug diamonds from the Big Hole in Kimberley to create their early wealth. They befriended the legendary Oom Paul Kruger, first president of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, who farmed the land England’s hotel now stands on.
And during the Apartheid years, they survived the noxious homeland system before badgering the big platinum mines for a share of the profits they deserved. Way back in 1989, when South Africa was in a state of emergency, plans for a massive football stadium were put in place... and sneered at by the white Government.
Bekker explains: “The Bafokeng are not your ordinary African tribe. We have a grand plan. Already the Leopards, Potchefstroom’s rugby team, have agreed to use our facility. And the Silver Stars football team have become the Platinum Stars and base themselves in Bafokeng.
“The kingdom covers 14,000 square kilometres, we have a Grand Plan covering education and development. The King gives every child in our 48 schools a free meal every day. And already we are seeing the benefits.
“We ask every one of our children to play one of five sports every day. Cricket, football, martial arts, athletics and netball. And our people dominated the recent national championships in cross-country and judo. Our local footballers are being recognised, we have the largest junior league in the country.
“This is all part of the Grand Plan. To be honest, we weren’t going to build the Sports Campus for another 30 years. But after the Confederations Cup was played here, we were approached by a European Football Association – I’ll leave you to guess which one – and we began work.
“It won’t end here. We have had specialist advice from around the world on where to go, what to do. We want to go all the way. And yes, we have European football teams eager to train here... and we have an Olympic plan too.”
Bekker has that glint in his eye. So too do the staff you come across, busily adding the final touches to a sportsman’s paradise.
There are no deadly snakes, no bloodbaths, no earthquakes, no muggings. The Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus could – should – provide the perfect launchpad for England’s World Cup bid.
Now it’s up to Fabio Capello and his Lions. They can ask no more from the Bafokeng people.
See the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAousno69rI and there's plenty more if you subscribe to my YouTube stream. Vuvuzelas plus the other camps, from the USA to New Zealand, Greece to Italy...
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
THERE'S a sangoma on the front page of the Johannesburg Star today, leaping in the air outside Soccer City, venue for the World Cup final on July 11.
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
THIS could be the single most important pre-World Cup statement made so far. Fernando Torres, the goal-getter who will lead Spain’s campaign, said today: “God willing, I'll be 100 per cent for the first game of the World Cup, for sure.”
This comes, of course, after the Liverpool striker was rushed off for an operation on his right knee in April. The average Anfield fan may not appreciate it, but Torres – the Reds’ most valuable player in a generally awful season – looks like he’ll be ready for Spain’s opening game against Switzerland on June 16 in an apparently easy Group H, which also includes Honduras and Chile.
Torres, who insists he will stay at Liverpool next season, said: "I will do a few more days of specific work. I’m happy with my progress. Since January I've had two operations, and that isn't easy. Everything went very well with the first, and in the second the objective was to be ready between six and seven weeks, and I'm at the start of the sixth.”
As for the speculation over his Anfield future, he says: "I want to think about Spain, about winning the World Cup. Since I've been injured, the season has been over for me. I've started working morning and evening to be able to be here, thinking only of getting there.
"It's been a very difficult season. When you start a campaign you hope you will be able to fulfil your dreams, win titles – but it has been just the opposite.
Torres is unlikely to feature in Spain’s three pre-tournament friendlies against Saudi Arabia and North Korea at altitude in Austria, then Poland in Murcia.
But come Spain’s big kick off at Durban’s magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium, he’ll be one of the favourites for the World Cup’s golden boot. He grins: "Pressure? No, but I know that, along with Villa, I'm lucky enough to be one of the strikers in a team that are among the favourites, and that brings certain privileges."
Backing up his man, Torres’s agent Jose Antonio Peto told Spain’s Punto Radio: "For the moment I can assure fans that Fernando will continue at Liverpool next season.
Monday, 24 May 2010
YOU know there's a World Cup on the horizon when you spend a Monday night being assailed by "friendly" football from around the globe. England 3-1 Mexico from Wembley, South Africa 1-1 Bulgaria from Soweto... not to mention Portugal drawing 0-0 with the erm... Cape Verde Islands and Argentina beating Canada 3-0.
But perhaps the big pre-World Cup story of the night comes from the greatest island in the world, where the vast Melbourne Cricket Ground witnessed Australia pipping New Zealand 2-1 in a friendly marred by appalling tackles.
Bearing in mind these two nations are generally expected to excel on the cricket and rugby fields, anticipation is high Down Under. But Aussie coach Pim Verbeek slammed his own players - Everton's Tim Cahill and Blackburn's Vince Grella - for a pair of awful tackles, both on Kiwi Leo Burtos.
Both would have been red card challenges in the World Cup and a fuming Verbeek said: "Vince's tackle was worse than Timmy's ... I can't find any reason why they should do what they did. I wanted to take them off immediately but you have to be a bit careful in a game like that.
"If I was the other side, I would have been a little bit mad and might have done something. But New Zealand were very professional and I applaud them - my players were not professional.
"It was a good lesson and I cannot accept what [Grella and Cahill] did. This is not how you should play the game. If it had been a World Cup game there would have been two red cards."
The South African game against Bulgaria was hardly a friendly either. Though all four Premier League stars missed the game in Soweto (Dimitar Berbatov, the Manchester United striker has retired from international football while South Africa’s trio of Benni McCarthy (West Ham), Steve Pienaar (Everton) and Aaron Mokoena (Portsmouth) were all rested) there was no quarter given.
England’s final appearance on home soil before flying out to Rustenburg on Monday was pretty competitive too.
Boss Fabio Capello chose to rest his four Chelsea stars (John Terry, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Ashley Cole) after their FA Cup final exertions and went with Tottenham’s injury-prone Ledley King next to captain Rio Ferdinand in central defence.
King promptly scored his first international goal in six years, latching on to club-mate Peter Crouch’s astute far post header. Crouch made it 2-0 from a standing position on the line and though Mexico’s limping Franco pulled one back just before half-time, Liverpool’s Glenn Johnson produced the moment of the match to wrap things up.
A quick one-two with an impressive Theo Walcott saw Johnson break through the Mexican line to bend a shot beautifully into the top corner. Superb.
Quotes of the night though came from World Cup organising committee chairman Danny Jordaan in Soweto. He said: “With the fans here tonight, and the performance on the field, it’s all going well. We can look forward with some optimism to the opening match.”
South Africa’s Brazilian boss Carlos Alberto Parreira said: “They had one shot on goal and they scored. The perfect result is always to win. But I’m happy with the performance. The Colombia friendly, our next game, will be different.”
That opening match sees the hosts take on Mexico at Soccer City on June 11. There were clues to how that would go from London and Johannesburg tonight. And some hard evidence. My advice to Parreira. Keep an eye on former Spurs man Giovani dos Santos, now playing in Turkey. He has lovely hair (permed and hair-banded) but don’t be fooled. The 21-year-old from Monterrey can play.
Okay, hints and allegations, incidents and accidents. I visited the Kiwi World Cup base at the Serengeti east of Johannesburg today. Stunning. But in truth, Argentina, Portugal, England, South Africa, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia have no real idea what to expect out here. And that’s how it should be. The World Cup is nearly upon us.