Thursday, 24 December 2009

The first British journalist into England's training camp... ME (and me dad and me brother!)

YESTERDAY I became the first British journalist allowed to view the England training camp before the 2010 World Cup.

And believe me, it wasn’t easy. Hidden behind the faded motel entrance (pictured, right) the Bafokeng Royal Sports Palace Complex isn’t even finished yet. Exactly 6km (about two-and-a-half-miles) beyond the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which rises out of nowhere in Phokeng, just outside Rustenburg, Fabio Capello’s pre-tournament home is emerging out of the platinum-rich red earth.

England will play the USA at the recently-revamped 50,000-capacity Palace on June 12. But their high-altitude base is the key to success. Hidden behind a peeling sign proclaiming “Sun Gardens Motel” an unbelievable centre for sports excellence is being built in secret, funded by the local Bafokeng tribe, who claim a percentage of the platinum profits.

But British journalists and hopeful onlookers are kept at arm’s length between Phokeng and Boshoek, two tiny African villages outside Rustenburg. We drove for miles searching for the mystical England training complex, expecting huge signage, before a local explained: “It’s behind that tree.”

In disbelief, we crossed the N14 to Sun City, about 100km from the international airport in Johannesburg, which we had travelled for some time. And the gateman at the apparently drab “Sun Gardens Motel” told us: “The Royal Bafokeng Sports Complex is here sir. But you are not allowed in.”

But we are old hands at this. My locally-based father Bob, my brother Glynn and I have already discovered the German base at Velmore Estate, the Italian camp at Leriba Lodge and the USA base at Irene, all near the Test cricket ground in Centurion.

After much persuasion, the gateman called up the big guy. Mark Ferguson, group security in charge of keeping prying eyes away from England’s base. Built to satisfy the king of the Bafokeng, Kagosi Leruo Molotgeti, England have the prime spot for their World Cup preparations. But nobody is allowed to see it.

While Spain, Italy, Argentina and the like face bus journeys between their hotels, training grounds and World Cup venues, England have it all on their doorstep as they prepare to dominate Group C in June next year.

Ferguson confirmed: “The tribe are funding all of this, it’s going to be a sporting centre of excellence for years to come. We are the highest point in South Africa, 100m higher than Johannesburg and Pretoria at 1500m.

“It sets teams up for playing at altitude. We will have the New Zealand and Australia rugby teams preparing here for the Tri-Nations. All kinds of sports teams will come here. But at the moment, we’re trying to keep things under wraps, no journalists allowed. No visitors”

There followed a brief chat. It turns out Ferguson, from Durban, used to play football in Kwa Zulu Natal. I know his old mates. He lets us through the gate, beyond the Sun Gardens Motel, which appears to be a lowly front for what is to come.

We follow him on his quad bike, into the complex. Five plastic pitches are being prepared. Ten grass pitches, unfairly criticised by Capello for having bare patches, are taking shape. They’ll be perfect by May, the rains are good. At least 12 floodlight pylons are already up, with the actual lights still to come.

This is an African sporting paradise. Two of the four sections of the luxury hotel were released by the builders in November. Two more are still to come. The Presidential suites are fabulous, the mirrors are huge, the players will want for nothing. And there is a high-spec gym under construction, with oxygen chambers and all a modern footballer could wish for.

“Look, this is a project still under development. We can’t even confirm England are staying here,” says Ferguson with a wry grin, “We will be ready by May though. You’d be amazed what we can do here, and we are only using local labour. The overseas experts will be brought in later.”

Across the road lies the Kedar country hotel, already fully booked for the World Cup. You’d pay £1,000 a night to book the Presidential Suite here, in a hotel with game lodge attached. Beautiful.

In six months, England will be perfectly placed for their World Cup crusade, David Beckham’s final attempt to end 43 years of hurt. Wife Victoria and the WAGS will be based in a lodge like Kedar or Sun City, South Africa’s Las Vegas, 30 miles up the road.

If we don’t win the World Cup from here, in the middle of nowhere, we never will. With the African nations all suffering in the draw in Cape Town on December 4 and England facing the USA down the road before games against Slovenia in Cape Town and Algeria in Port Elizabeth. They’ll pop down to the coast for those two games to maintain their altitude acclimatisation. When you play at sea-level after training inland, you can run forever.

And then they come back to Phokeng, barely three miles from here, for their first knock-out encounter. It couldn’t be any better. England are looking good for the World Cup 2010. As long as you know where to look.

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