Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A great day in Pretoria... and Port Elizabeth. England and the USA emerge from Group C

WHEN I was kid I had this nightmare. I'm walking through Pretoria with an England shirt on and the cross of St George waving over my head. I last about ten minutes before large Blou Bulle rugby fans leave the Limey trampled underfoot with my flag stuck somewhere painful.
I used to wake up sweating.
That nightmare came to pass today at the heart of Afrikanerdom, where they used to be more bothered about the Boer War than the World Cup. Video evidence will soon be available. I had no choice. England playing for their lives against mighty Slovenia in Port Elizabeth but I'm assigned to the USA's battle for survival against Algeria at Loftus Versfeld.
What a day. There were 35,000 at the home of what I once knew as Northern Transvaal, where Englishmen, Americans and certainly Algerians might have been in for a frostry reception in the 1980s.
And here we were, thirty years later, flags resplendent, celebrating perhaps the most colourful World Cup in history. For a taster, see
Africa's first effort at hosting the global extravaganza could have done with an African victory - and certainly the Algerians, who claim to represent the whole of the Arabic northern power block - were out in numbers.
And the Yanks? Incredible. Thousands of them draped in their stars and stripes. Yes, thousands of Yanks and their dollars loving South Africa. And there's me and the missus, the only ones with the red cross waving and England emblazoned across our chests.
To provide context: I lived in what was known as Verwoerdburg from 1970 to 1985. Tough place to grow up with my accent. Even tougher place to play rugby against schools like Menlo Park and Affies.
But today the centre of what is now known as Centurion was home to a thriving fan zone. The centre of Pretoria was alight with World Cup fans, the beer was flowing, FIFA's licensed hot-dogs were selling like hot cakes and I thought to myself... what a beautiful World Cup. How far this nation has come in the 16 short years since democracy.
Not that the game between the US and Algeria glittered too much at the start. A chap called William Clinton took a seat near me. Well, within 400 yards. It's on the video! Former American president Bill (we're familiar now we've been to the same game) said: "South Africa is bursting with pride. They think they've done a good job, better than everyone said they would. It's been good for this country and this continent and I believe in them."
Okay, he didn't tell me that. He told the SABC cameramen. Me? I was talking to Algerians, Pretorians and Americans. Neither side could produce the early goal which might have swung Group C. And then the mobile phone twanged. My brother at home in Centurion. Jermain Defoe had scored for England after just ten minutes against group leaders Slovenia, that mighty nation of 2,030,000 who prefer skiing to football.
England (pop 52,000,000 with football the national sport under the patron saint St David of Becks) were finally playing. Glimpses of the action on the screens in the boxes. How to take in two games at once?
Conversation flowed, flags waved and all I got in response to the dreaded England shirt was a sea of smiles and chants of "Eng-er-land".
When Algeria hit the bar, England responded in distant Port Elizabeth with a Wayne Rooney effort which hit the post. As the US began to wrest control of the game at Loftus, Slovenia were starting to play after half-time at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Two huge crowds gripped by Group C action - and a global audience of billions tuning in to see South Africa host day after day of perfectly run international football.
Okay, Bafana Bafana were squeezed out on Tuesday, but the nation should not mourn. The French have gone home to rotten fruit to be told they have put their nation back 50 years. President Sarkozy will meet with Thierry Henry today to tell him so.
But for the rest of us, this World Cup keeps on giving. England hung on for victory, improved but still way short of what we expect from our millionaires in boots.
But just when it looked like they would win the group despite John Terry's press conference tantrum on Sunday, the US came up with the goal we'd all been waiting for.
America's greatest footballer threw himself into the melee with the 91st minute winner which broke Algerian hearts and put the US through on top of the Group. Landon Donovan, some geezer.
A goal like that might have led to trouble at some of the games I've seen over the years. But not here, not at the Rainbow Nation's grand party. The thousands of Algerians laughed and sang with the cockahoop Yanks. They didn't react to the over-the-top celebrations by the American players. They simply took it on the chin. Incredible. Try that at West Ham or Millwall.
And it went on. Through the Pretoria night, flags waving, vuvuzelas blasting. The much-derided park-and-ride system moved smoothly into action and an hour later, everyone's been there, done that. England and the US through from Group C. Slovenia and Algeria go home with heads held high.
Another great day from the World Cup that keeps on giving.

Neal Collins is in South Africa to complain about England's performance and promote his first novel A GAME APART. See

To see Neal at the National Arts Festival on July 4, go to

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