Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Where the World Cup powers have their base: cricket takes a second place

I know, I know. I'm supposed to be here to write about cricket. Four fascinating Tests between South Africa, the world's second best side since India went to No1 this week, and England, currently fifth in the world.
But the problem is, the World Cup here in South Africa next year keeps impinging on my focus. And the reason? Within about a 10-mile radius of the venue for England's first cricket Test tomorrow, you will find all sorts of great footballing nations taking residence before Africa's first World Cup starts in six months.
On Sunday, driving to find a nearby cheese shop, my father and I chanced upton the Velmore Estate, which will house the Germans next June. Unbelievable place. I've already written about it already.
Then, after interviewing the England cricketer Stuart Broad yesterday, I came across the Leriba Lodge in the middle of Centurion as we drove home from the University of Pretoria's High Performance Centre, which will house Argentina.
A quick check and yes, the Leriba Lodge, stuck right in the middle of suburban Centurion, will house the Italians. They will train at nearby Swartkop High School, who already host the New Zealand rugby team whenever they visit. The school have a purpose-built pitch, with stands, to accommodate major international teams.
Thing is, the World Cup venues in Pretoria and Johannesburg - Loftus Versfeld and Ellis Park - are only 35 miles apart. And Centurion lies just to the Pretoria side of the equation. This is the perfect place for World Cup teams to be based, at altitude, where games at sea-level become matter-of-fact.
And then, today after the press conference with Andrew Strauss, my dad and I stopped off at Irene Lodge, home to the USA during the World Cup. And then we drove on to Southdowns College, a huge school nearby, where they will train.
Needless to say, it's magnificent. Like England's base at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg. All posh rooms, huge mirrors, state-of-the-art decor and fabulous facilities. But Fabio Capello's men are 60 miles away from Centurion, a safe, tourist-friendly town just outside Pretoria.
Clearly, England will keep their fans and WAGs at arm's length in Bafokeng, and put the hanger's-on, the wives and girlfriends, in the mini-Las Vegas that is Sun City, 13 miles away.
But here in Centurion, Germany, the USA and Italy will provide a far friendlier venue for their media, fans and partners.
Germany's base at the Velmore Estate has already been talked about on this site. Magnificent, an oasis in the middle of nowhere. Italy's base at Leriba Lodge is far more suburban, based about two miles away from the cricket ground. Though all the nearby houses are fenced in and protected by armed guards, Leriba will give the Italians a perfect home for their six weeks in South Africa.
Though major reconstruction is currently underway, their base offers three restaurants, a spa and complete security. Nobody can move in the complex without being monitored.
And the USA base at Irene Lodge is, in my view, even better. Positioned in the old suburb of Irene where they exiled the local English populace during the Boer War, it is a real delight.
A huge lake dominates the lay-out and like we did today, you can eat on a wooden terrace out over the water. Paradise. A home to many important society weddings among the local populace.
Service in all these venues is exquisite. South Africa's catering crew, your barmen and waitresses, appreciate having employment like few in Britain can ever understand. The smiles are bright and real, a miniscule tip is accepted with open arms.
But the hidden timebomb? The cost for ordinary fans. While the teams are all safely booked in around this area, halfway between Pretoria and Johannesburg, where the World Cup final will be played on July 11 in Soccer City, the hotels and guest houses are planning a major money-making coup.
I could get a hotel in Centurion tonight for R450, which is just over £20 a night. But come the World Cup, as I showed several of the locals on my lap top, that price leaps into the stratosphere.
The only big hotel in Centurion with vacancies on June 11, the first night of the World Cup, demands R7,500 for a single night's accommodation. That's around £500 a night. Ridiculous. And the local bed and breakfasts, ungraded by the government, are demanding three times their normal rate, rising from a reasonable £4o a night this week, to £300 a night by mid-June.
How the hell do fans arriving from Europe cope with inflation like that? It's a tough one. Rustenburg, as the minister of tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk revealed to me last week, has a shortage of 14,200 beds during the World Cup.
Polokwane, Nelspruit and Bloemfontein show similar shortcomings. The big tourist centres, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban and iconic Cape Town, have no such worries.
So with all the big nations, Germany, Italy, Spain and England, up here in Centurion, not to mention Holland, idolised by the locals, based in Sandton down the road, where exactly do you find a value-for-money habitat for the greatest footballing show on earth next June?
It's easy. Get a tent. And a sleeping bag. Camp. I have found a secure, fenced-in camping site two miles from Centurion, with easy access to the Germans, Italians and USA (the Americans have currently purchased more tickets than anyone for next year's World Cup with England second in the rankings if you discount South Africa). Okay, the World Cup will take place in winter here and temperatures can dip alarmingly in June and July. But it won't rain. I promise. It never does in winter here.
Camp in Centurion and you're right in the middle of the high altitude World Cup venues. And it's not bad for England and Spain (Hunter's Rest, which is rather nice) in Rustenburg, if you don't mind the hour's drive.
While the various national teams have secured themselves comfortable, luxurious pre-tournament camps for the 2010 World Cup, the fans will be scrabbling about until the last minute. Just keep an eye on this blog. There are safe, secure alternatives. I will hunt them down. And cover the Test series against South Africa. Believe me!
And do we really have to focus on Manchester United's comfortable 3-0 win over Wolves - Sir Alex Ferguson's 900th game in charge - or Aston Villa's 2-0 win at Sunderland. Birmingham beat Blackburn 2-1 and Bolton won 3-1 against troubled West Ham, who are resisting a takeover from Birmingham's old owners.
Tomorrow we've got Chelsea v Portsmouth, Burnley v Arsenal, Liverpool v Wigan and Spurs v Manchester City in the battle for fourth place. Great. But isn't it about time we started thinking about the World Cup next year?

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