Thursday, 22 April 2010

Altitude and Altidore The Threat To England In Jozyburg

IT’S the game primed to decide the whole tone of the World Cup. England versus the USA, Group C, at the Royal Bafokeng Soccer Palace near Rustenburg on June 12.

This remote venue – built by the local tribal king with his vast platinum profits - will play host to the two nations responsible for the highest foreign tickets sales in what has been, up to now, a difficult market.

England see it as a chance to reverse their worst ever World Cup result – the infamous 1-0 defeat at Belo Horizonte in 1950 – but Hull’s Jozy Altidore, as we shall hear later, reckons his lot are in for a crack at the final after their success at the Confederations Cup in South Africa last year.

It’s a good 90 minutes across the single-track Hartebeespoort Dam wall from Johannesburg (also known, ironically, as Jozy) and Pretoria, and it could be a damn wall by the time the fans bottle-neck it in early June. After the vast, scenic reservoir, the R4 to Rustenburg is a toll road, the alternative roads are pot-holed (but being repaired, I’m told) as you drive through 60 miles of platinum mines and shanty towns, punctuated by huge fruit farms.

This is the road to Sun City, the golf and gambling paradise. And it’s always been a risk. If the fans don’t turn up for this one, it will be a very poor start for Africa’s first World Cup.

Both sides –given their FIFA rankings - are expected to qualify from a group which also features Algeria (27) and Slovenia (29). England (8) are scheduled to return to the Palace – just four miles from their World Cup base at the Royal Marang Hotel - for their first knock-out game as Group C winners (their plans to stay near high-altitude Rustenburg have been in place for 18 months which is why I’ve always suggested the World Cup draw was fixed, see, a video recorded after the draw on December 4). The USA (16), as runners-up, will head for Bloemfontein, which ain’t a holiday resort. No sir.

That’s why the Yanks won’t want to lose this one. They’ll want to see off England and play the Group D runners-up in Rustenburg, disturbing England’s carefully laid preparations. That would send England on the 500 mile journey to Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, traditionally the heart of Afrikaner country. And they don’t much like the English (don’t bother yourself, this grudge goes back to 1888 and a series of Bore Wars, sorry Boer Wars).

Talking of wars, Group D, of course, is a bit of a group of death. Kind of a gathering of gloom. It contains Germany (6), Australia (19), Serbia (15) and Ghana (31). My guess is Germany will win it, Ghana will finish second. And I know who I’d rather play, especially with Chelsea’s Michael Essien expressing doubts today over his knee before Africa’s greatest footballing month.

So who is perfectly placed to look ahead to this crunch game, the scene-setter for the two best-followed nations in South Africa on June 12? The Americans have several players operating in England – their star man Landon Donovan came over on loan with Everton, crocked our left-back Ashley Cole (accidentally of course) and went home to prepare.

But Altidore, the huge, lightning-quick Hull winger, will stay to the bitter end of the Premier League season, with compatriots Tim Howard (Everton), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Jonathan Spector (West Ham), Marcus Hahnemann (Wolves) and club-mate Boaz Myhill.

Josmar Volmy Altidore, all muscle and pace, is still just 20 but he is a definite in a tricky squad selection for coach Bob Bradley.

Altidore, skating over the twin disasters of a car crash involving his mate and fellow US international Charlie Davies and the earthquake in his parents’ Haiti, says: “As we found out in the Confederations Cup in South Africa last year, anything can happen. Italy and Spain were there but we were beating Brazil 2-0 in the final.

“We had the win in the bag. That’s what we thought. But you can’t do that against a team of Brazil’s calibre and we lost 3-2. But it was a good lesson to learn.

“I think that all of us agree that we’re in a group which will allow us to play our football. We’ll be up against a world force in England and two quick teams in Slovenia and Algeria, and I think these opponents really suit our style of play.”

Nothing to be scared of then, for the lad from Livingstone, New Jersey? “We're never scared,” he grins, “We’re really looking forward to the England game. I think that we’re capable of beating anybody on our day and there’s no team in the world that can beat us easily.

“We’re up to the challenge and the English will realise that when we meet them. It'll be a tough match; no team can walk over us.

But Altidore admits: “I’ve been through a lot over the last two or three years that people don’t know about. I was trying to put the car accident behind me when the earthquake struck in Haiti. I’ve still got family there but you have to be strong and not let the sadness weigh you down.

“Even before all that I had family issues which stopped me from focusing completely on football. They affected my performances. Things are better now and I’ve vowed to myself that this will be the year I return to the very top, taking full advantage of the World Cup. I'll be getting back to doing what I love.”

Altidore insists playing for lowly relegation candidates Hull is no bad thing. He grins: “It’s very different to Villarreal and New York, where I played before.

“I knew moving to England wouldn’t be easy. I was aware I was joining a team where I wasn’t going to score lots of goals. It was a challenge and a decision that I’d really thought through. I don’t regret it at all.

“Things are different at Hull. We’re battling against relegation. That makes every goalscoring opportunity, every point and every win valuable.

“I was the first American to score in La Liga. Being the first American to score in a World Cup final would be unbelievable - but it’s very possible. Just look at the Confederations Cup.”

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