Saturday, 15 May 2010

Soon England will find out how difficult it is to host a World Cup. It's a long time since 1966

You come all the way to sunny Durban to see the odd strike hit the net. Not a strike from Transnet. And suddenly you find yourself worrying about container ships instead of containing midfielders.

I can see 31 frustrated boats waiting for the strike by the dock workers to end from my window overlooking the Indian Ocean at the Umhlanga Sands hotel. One for each visiting World Cup nation.

Apparently the emergency generators demanded by FIFA for every ground are out there somewhere, rusting gently. And the imported fruits are getting over-ripe in the hold. Always thought that was a Cape Town thing, judging from my visit there with the England cricket team in January. Very fruity, the new Capetonians.

But I digress. The Transnet strike is just the latest World Cup scare story to hit the media. In the wee hours of Friday morning, I was on BBC Radio 5 in my hotel room being assailed with the normal pre-tournament questions. “Is the crime bad over there?” asked presenter Tony Livesey. No, I said, it’s largely paranoia. Just stick to the safe streets like you would in any city. I’ve walked around Johannesburg in a suit, and hardly been mugged at all (cue hysterical laughter). Then his studio guest, a lady called Jane, came up with another brilliant World Cup query: “How bad is the crime out there?” she asked, worried about her stay in Cape Town next month.

So I told her too. How my wife and I had walked, with a group of Barmy Army cricket fans, down Long Street in Cape Town on New Year’s night. Intimidating for Englishmen reared on lurid tales of darkest Africa, but the worst thing we had thrown at us were shouts of “Happy New Year!”

“Oh,” said Jane, “I’m staying in Long Street for the World Cup. That’s a relief.” Another happy customer.

And so it goes on. I spend so much time on nationally available Sky News, on Britain’s commercial sports station talkSPORT, in South Africa on 702, Cape Talk, KFM and Highveld, not to mention SABC Radio 2000, and in the newspapers in both countries (I've got a whole page in the Saturday Independent here today). And on the global Internet. Just Google me. My life is spent knocking down the ridiculous tales of World Cup woe, persuading Americans, Germans, Argentinians, and Slovenians to come and see for themselves.

Thousands of British fans have been over here for cricket and rugby tours, all satisfied customers. But somehow our football supporters—not the gentlest of folk—are heading for real trouble.

If you believed the red tops in England, you’d never leave your front room. “Bloodbath awaits football fans,” “Panga massacre threat to England supporters,” “Terrorist threat over England game,” “Wags warned to stay at home,” and the more imaginative “Earthquake threat to Rustenburg puts England on red alert.”

What they tend to forget of course is that London hosts an Olympics in 2012 in the notorious East End, where muggings and gang warfare are rife, and knife crime is up 42 percent. Every time a murder takes place there, I’m tempted to phone one of my South African sports editor pals and suggest a headline along the lines of: “London faces Olympic bloodbath” or “See London and die in 2012.”

And of course, on Friday, England’s 2018 World Cup bid slammed in to top gear with David Beckham, limping slightly, at the forefront. Do they know what they’re in for?

That ultra-smooth FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke will become a near-resident with his vast whispering entourage. And FIFA will take over large swathes of Britain. Innocent businessmen who work close to football stadia selling shirts and scarves will find themselves having to pay £2,500 to cash-rich FIFA to keep their stalls near the stadia—just as they have in South Africa—local mayors will have to sign over control of their cities—just as they have in South Africa—and every hotel, every ground, every transport system will have to meet FIFA’s specifications—just as they have in South Africa.

Then the English will have to face the prospect of being turned into FIFAland for months on end. Told what to do by autocratic football politicians who say they love the beautiful game, but appear to be more interested in profit.

It’s not easy. All they need is to find the head of Britain’s right wing supremacists, say Queen Elizabeth II’s hubby Phil, beaten to death with his trousers down. But I guess they’d just blame Julius Malema.

Poor bloke. All he does is shout his mouth off and everyone thinks he’s going to bring the nation to its knees. I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. He’s head of the ANC Youth Brigade and he looks like that? No wonder he always seems so deeply disgusted with life.

All in all though, my latest trip to South Africa has been highly encouraging. Search YouTube for my footage from the Italian training camp at Leriba Lodge and the USA base at Irene, both in Centurion. I also got the camera out on my arrival at the spanking new King Shaka international airport.

Read for an assessment of the World Cup bases and my visits to the Soccer City, Loftus Versveld, Bafokeng Sports Palace, Green Point, and the magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium. It’s all there, South Africa is ready. If I’ve said that once, I’ve said it a thousand times, though they’re still working on the final details along Durban’s Marine Parade, now quaintly renamed O Tambo Drive.

And with less than a month to go before the big kick-off on June 11, global opinion is starting to turn. South Africa really is going to host the continent’s first World Cup. What was it that former England legend John Barnes told me a few weeks ago? “South Africa is like the nation of my birth, Jamaica. A beautiful country with a bad reputation. They say in Jamaica you’ll get murdered and everyone’s on drugs. It’s just not right. I believe South Africa will host the most colourful, passionate World Cup ever seen.”

Thanks to “Digger” Barnes and your own great footballing diplomats like Lucas Radebe, Bob Skinstad, and Aaron Mokoena, the tide is turning. South Africa 2010 is ready to rumble rather than grumble. Late bookings are flooding in, according to the people I spoke to at the vast Indaba 2010 tourism conference in Durban this week.

Now all you have to do is find a cork for those bloody Vuvuzelas!

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