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...