Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Germans are coming... and so are England. But Brazil are in Bloemfontein...

SOMEWHERE between searching for a cheese shop in the African highveld and watching Arsenal stuff Liverpool, my dad and I found a gem today. The German World Cup hotel.
Yes, there we were in the blistering African sun, about five miles from our base in Centurion, venue for the first cricket Test match between England and South Africa, innocently looking for dairy products, when suddenly we spied an oasis. A huge, ostentatious complex called the Velmore Estate (above).
"Hold on dad," I said in my journalist-cum-son way, "Isn't that where the USA are staying for the World Cup?"
"Bugger off," said dad, in his father-cum-Hitler way, "The cheese shop is just down here somewhere."
Indeed it was, about two miles further on the road to Pretoria West, just out of a mundane little suburb called Erasmia. The middle of nowhere. Believe me. And the cheese shop owners put me right: "It's not the USA, it's the Germans. They're going to be here for the World Cup. We're trying to sell them our biltong and feta product!"
They're also trying to get an acohol licence for their little coffee shop, and satellite television with all the sports channels. They know they're sitting on (or very near to) a goldmine, which will open briefly in the middle of South Africa this winter.
Yes, from the start of June until mid-July, Michael Ballack and his Germans will be staying in the middle of nowhere, about 15 miles outside of Pretoria, 30 miles from Oliver Tambo international airport and 35 miles from Johannesburg.
But what a middle of nowhere the Velmore is. For my German readers: "Achtung! Das hotel ist gross!"
Bloody huge it is. Two hotels actually. The Velmore and the Velmore Grande. They sit on the banks of the sometimes Amazonian Hennops River, which can be reduced to a muddy trickle in winter here.
Sandwiched between a typical South African homestead with washing on the line and a nursery full of highveld daisies, it's a dream. Like Pennyhill Park, where England's rugby players prepare for their big games in Bagshot, it has everything a modern sports team could ask for. And a little bit more.
Visitors should not be put off by the early appearance of two emus as you negotiate your way through security. Not African ostriches. Bloody antipodean emus. I ask you...
Beyond the exotic birds lies paradise. Two gorgeous five star hotels, one next to the other. A spa to die for, as good as Pennyhill Park with an Ozone bed. Three huge banqueting halls, a marriage chapel, a swimming pool with a sandy beach 600 miles from the coast and a long stretch of lawn next to the river which will soon echo to the sound of German international footballers in top gear.
Ishmael Maja, the supervisor from Polokwane, another World Cup venue, showed us round in a golf buggy, telling us: "We know it will be hard work having millionaire footballers here for six weeks, but we are ready. We can handle anything. If they ask, they will get it."
Endless well-dressed, articulate staff attend your every move, the rooms are sumptuous (at R1,500 a night for a standard bed per night, they should be, that's about £120, going up to £2,500 for a luxury room, about £200, which is pricey for South Africa) and the decor is stunning - they only opened the second, grande hotel in November.
Clearly England have the upper hand, about an hour's drive away in Rustenburg's Bafokeng Sports Palace, where numerous training grounds lie in wait outside the doors of their hotel. But they got in first. Fabio Capello, knowing his side would get Group C and a first group game in Rustenburg, he got the prime venue for preparation. It boasts huge mirrors, which David Beckham may enjoy, and is literally fit for a king, Kgosi Leruo Molotlegio, the monarch of the Bafokeng tribe (who earn a significant amount from the local platinum mines) had the place built.
But the Germans haven't done badly. Unlike the seaside bases booked by France (Knysna) and Japan (George), they'll be at altitude (about 1,300m, like a low-lying ski resort) and they can scoot down to the coast for their sea-level qualifiers, just like England.
The prevailing wisdom, gleaned from our rugby and cricketers, is that World Cup preparation should be done at altitude. Then, even when you pop down to sea-level, as England will do in Cape Town versus Algeria and Port Elizabeth against Slovenia, you keep the high red-blood corpuscle count and are able to maintain your acclimatisation to the thinner air up here.
That's why Argentina will be based at Pretoria University's High Performance Centre and Australia are headed for the stunning Kloofzicht Lodge in Muldersdrift, near Johannesburg.
The USA are based at Irene Country Lodge and Italy at Leriba Lodge, both a stone's throw from where England's cricketers will start their Test series on Wednesday.
All and all, it makes for boom time in these parts. Money is pouring in to Centurion and the surrounding areas in the 35 miles between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Nobody has chosen to base themselves in Cape Town (the only city where it rains in the South African winter) and only Holland have decided opted for the bright lights of mid-city (the Sandton Sun, where England's cricketers are currently housed, watching the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year awards).
And while our cricketers will be lamenting another massive thunderstorm tonight, our footballers need not worry. It doesn't rain here in winter.
England and Germany appear to have the perfect preparation for the World Cup all lined up. Unlike Brazil, who are headed for gloomy Bloemfontein and the Slovenians, based in Johannesburg.
But watch out for Spain. The Euro 2006 champions have booked in to Hunter's Rest in Rustenburg after their impressive unbeaten qualifying run. Another oasis.
In sport, as in life, preparation is everything. These may seem mere details but come June, all this could be vital. And the WAGs can go to Sun City. Perfect. England, Germany or Spain it is. And Arsenal for the Premier League after the weekend's topsy-turvy goings-on.

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