Sunday, 9 May 2010

In just 24 hours, with a little help from Lucas Radebe, Durban destroys the World Cup doom mongers

There are days when this job is all worthwhile. The last 24 hours are highlighted by my picture today and in my latest video, posted from the 18th floor of the Elangeni Hotel overlooking the crashing Indian Ocean in tropical Durban. Here, you sweat in winter.
And in 24 hours, this seaside city has proved itself ready for the World Cup - and an Olympics at some stage in the future.
Don't stop reading, it's a real option. Last night I went with former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad (we met on Twitter, I do radio stuff with him, hopefully Supersport football during the World Cup) to watch Super 14 rugby.
There were 35,000 fans there to see the big grudge match, Durban's Sharks against Cape Town's title-chasing Stormers. And the Sharks, to roars which echoed across the golden beaches, won it 20-14.
The Stormers should still be able to reach the semi-finals but they'll need to beat the table-topping Pretoria Bulls first. If they don't, there's a chance they could play eachother in an all-South African semi - and that will have to be played in Soweto!
It's true. With Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld now deemed a World Cup stadium, the traditionally conservative Bulls fans live in the heartland of post-Apartheid Afrikanerdom. Now they have to go to the Super Stadium in Orlando. Traditionally a soccer stadium, it's a real sign of change in South Africa.
Football has always been the No1 game here. Now they know it! There's a famous old Boer song "We are marching to Pretoria", which will have to be changed to "We are marching to Soweto"... but Durban know they'll always have an option.
In essence, last night with the rugby journalists was about assessing the mood of the non-footballing media before the World Cup. And to my surprise, it's extremely positive.
This was also about tasting Durban's sporting facilities. As my video shows, the 55,000-capacity rugby stadium - once called Kings Park, now the sponsored Absa Stadium - is just across the road from the magnificent new 65,000-capacity Moses Mabhida Stadium, built for the World Cup.
Quite apart from the fact that the huge domed football stadium has been built with little fuss (and a Wembleyesque arch where people can ride a cable car and bungy jump - see the video!) what strikes me is what a great Olympic venue Durban will make.
Here, next to the Indian Ocean, it's never truly winter. And with Kings Park used for football and the Moses Mabhida as the main stadium, they've got a massive swimming pool complex just down the road, not to mention an athletics track and velodrome for cyclists.
About a mile away stands the Kingsmead Test cricket stadium for events like the Pentathlon, archery, softball and the like. And of course, in the harbour, there's room for the yachting events. It's a natural selection. The Olympic bid must come.
The real reason I'm here in Durban a month before the World Cup is Indaba 2010. South African tourism have flown me out for this vast tourism conference at the impressive Durban ICC, which could also house Olympic events.
Today we decamped to the Moses Mabhida Stadium for a "Global Media Face-off". That was an eye-opener. We had the ministers for tourism and airports - two very impressive women - plus Danny Jordaan, the local World Cup chief, and Jerome Valcke, the FIFA man on the spot.
Valcke, revealing impressive ticket sales, appears to be relishing what was initially a tough role before Africa's first World Cup.
He smoothly talked his way out of any difficult questions - including why FIFA will charge local vendors R25,000 to sell their cheap wares near the stadia - and a general air of optimism pervades an event which once looked improbable.
With Europe worried by the collapse of the Greek economy, South Africa appear ready to take the role of sports supernation. And Valcke confirmed: "We never considered taking the World Cup away from South Africa. There was no Plan B. On the heads of my children I promise you this."
And standing just down from him another impressive bloke. General Bheki Cele, head of police and the man assigned to keep England fans on their best behaviour.
I got to speak to him - I hate to name drop but he joined my conversation with local footballing God Lucas Radebe, formerly of Leeds (he's the guy they named the Kaiser Chiefs pop group after).
I wouldn't mess with Cele. He's been all over the world from India to England, Germany to Holland, talking to "football police". Amid all this talk about South African crime rates, he seems unfazed by the reputation of English football fans, warning: "We have powers. Depending on the crime we will issue a life-sentence or send them home if they step out of line. We are ready."
And indeed they are. The Moses Mabhida Stadium, like Soccer City near Soweto, added to the new airport at King Shaka, cannot be ignored.
The only problem? South Africa's ailing football team. When Radebe was playing in the 1990s, South Africa were African Nations Cup champions and they qualified for two World Cups.
Now they are the lowest ranked host nation in the history of the World Cup. If they'd been asked to qualify they would have failed dismally.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Radebe said to me: "We have Steven Pienaar, he's just been voted Everton's player of the year. And even if Benni McCarthy isn't fully fit, he can get the goals.
"I'd play our veteran Siyabonga Nomvete straight down the middle with McCarthy lying off him. And at the back, Aaron Mokoena has got an FA Cup final coming up next week for Portsmouth. We might be okay. We may get out of the group."
With Mexico, Uruguay and France also in Group A, that will be no mean feat. But Radebe, like all the locals, is getting behind Bafana Bafana.
And amid the plethora of negative publicity overseas, you can't help feeling this may just be a very special World Cup.

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