Saturday, 12 December 2009

Like watching Wycombe play at Wembley. My first World Cup venue review

SO while most of the rest of the football-speaking world were watching Chelsea held 3-3 by Everton, Spurs upset 1-0 at home by Wolves and Manchester United go down1-0 against Aston Villa, guess where I was?
At Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, the venue for South Africa's World Cup clash against Uruguay on June 16.
Other games at Loftus, South Africa's favourite rugby ground? Serbia v Ghana on June 13, Cameroon v Denmark on June 19, USA v Algeria on June 23 and Chile v Spain on June 25.
They will also host the round of 16 clash between the winner of Group F - probably Italy - against the runner-up in Group E - possibly Cameroon or Denmark - on 29 June.
Beneath the shadow of the Lukasrand Post Office tower - complete with giant football to advertise the coming World Cup (pictured by yours truly), Loftus is a huge venue, capacity 50,00, with no roof against tropical storms in summer, but then it doesn't rain at all in the winter, which is what the southern hemisphere nation will be experiencing during the World Cup.
It's been used as a sporting venue since 1903 but has enjoyed a few upgrades since. I did what few tourists - or whites in this country - would dream of. I simply walked up to the ground, asked for a ticket... and enjoyed my 90 minutes.
Was I threatened? Mugged? Intimdated? Nope. The ticket cost R20, which is about £1.50 (and a fifth of the price of World Cup tickets), and for that I had about 48,000 seats to choose from. The crowd amounted to around 2,000, partly due to the fact that ever-popular Kaizer Chiefs were playing two hours later down the road at the sold-out Atteridgeville Super Stadium.
Somehow though, the hardly band of about 1,000 SuperSport United supporters, with their side heading for their third successive Premier Soccer League trophy, managed to create an atmosphere using a band of buglers, trombonists and bass drummers, not to mention plenty of the traditional Africa Vuvuzela horns. For the full 90 minutes, as they tore the PSL's bottom club apart, the SuperSports superband kept up their melodic progress.
But what music was it? The latest African hits? Traditional stuff? It certainly wasn't the kind of nonsense the Sheffield Wednesday brass band use to drown out the crowd at Hillsborough. Problem solved. The ladies behind me explained that were playing "popular wedding songs" throughout. At it wasn't half bad.
In that huge bowl it was all a bit like watching Wycombe Wanderers struggling for their lives in Division One - but using Wembley or Twickenham as a home for their tiny band of fans.
SuperSport, boasting three BafanaBafana (The Boys, The Boys as the national team is known) regulars were simply too physical for Cosmos, who had all the talent but must have weighed about two stone less on average than the home team. Ironic really, because Jomo Sono, the once-great South African footballer of the 70s who named his side after his New York Cosmos experiences, is now a huge old induna!
More important than the 3-0 win by SuperSport United, which puts them even further clear of the chasing pack, is how the place measures up as a World Cup venue.
Ironically, England's cricketers will be training 400 yards down the road at Pretoria University's LC De Villiers Stadium on Monday as they prepare for the first Test against South Africa at Centurion on Wednesday.
And that kind of sums up the area. Plenty of sports grounds, the local university, with busy Sunnyside, the commercial centre of Pretoria, just down the road. We drove around the centre of Pretoria without a problem, windows open, just like you would in any other city.
I went to the game on my own, without a ticket, and had no trouble getting sorted. I struck up conversation with Reggie Mthale, a local electrician, who said: "We are all determined this World Cup will be the greatest ever. It's the first for Africa and all our sides have got a tough draw. But all South Africa have to do is beat France. I hope the referee keeps an eye out for handball!
"I know the stadium is empty tonight but in South Africa only Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates get the big crowds. When the World Cup comes, this stadium will be filled for every game. And you can feel safe here, not matter what people might tell you."
Oh, and the final link to Saturday's Premier League shocks? The last time Manchester United lost to Aston Villa was in 1983. Back then, both goals in a 2-0 win were scored by a striker called Peter Withe, a man who was spotted by Derek Dougan playing for Arcadia Shepherds about a mile away from Loftus Versfeld!

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