THE South African security police have just brought me back to my room in Potchefstroom. I thought I was never going to make it. I have shown them my British passport. I am now a free man. Phew.
For those who doubt the veracity of the security at this World Cup, rest easy. I thought I would never see another football match about an hour ago. That’s not a criticism, it’s a compliment.
Problem is, I tried to wander in to the grounds of the Potchefstroom University High Performance Centre, where Spain – the favourites – are due to train before they kick-off their first Group G game against Switzerland on June 16.
They arrive on June 11, a little later than the rest. I wanted to do another of my classically amateur “World Cup base” videos for YouTube, see where Cesc Fabregas was going to stay for a month, sample the atmosphere of one of the finest high-altitude training centres in the world.
Then Arnold struck. He stopped me at the gate. I was in a suit, video camera in hand. “Sorry sir, you can go no further.”
Fair enough. Then his pal Plaaitjies turned up. In Afrikaans, his supervisor ordered him to put me in front of the closed-circuit television camera. He said this was “baie belangrik” and added “hou hom daar”.
Problem is, I can speak the local language. He was saying it was “very important” and “hold him there.” Despite the near-freezing Highveld winter evening, I started to sweat.
My driver Samuel, from the Lemon Tree guest house, turned up to get me. By then the local police had turned up. I was in serious trouble. Then the security police joined them. And two burly lads from the High Performance Centre.
Look I wasn’t arrested. They didn’t read me my rights. But I was certainly “unavoidably detained”.
Now I know how men with beards feel when they walk through airports. I tried to usual smooth talk, telling them how wonderful their country is, how I’d written an entire page on African football in the local Johannesburg Star that very day. Then the phone rang. The local radio station, 702 wanted to talk about the day’s pre-World Cup goings-on. Oops. Later.
Then the fateful question: “Your passport please sir.” And of course, I’d left it in my room. South Africans always have their identity documents on hand. I was lost. It was a life-term for sure.
I showed them my press card from the now-defunct London Lite newspaper, valid until next year. Not good enough.
I eked my passport number out of my mobile phone. Not good enough.
A bloke called Sam started making phone calls. I was escorted to see my driver and told him to go home. God, it was like South Africa when I was a kid. Full of dark secrets and whispered Afrikaans threats.
But these weren’t the same sjambok-wielding monsters of my youth. The picture above is just a stock pic. I didn't dare take a snap while I was there!
But by now we were all getting on famously, despite the tension. I explained I could speak Afrikaans and knew a bit about the place. The big bearded bloke assigned to guard me explained that, just last week, some “men with tattoos” had visited the centre claiming to be from “International Intelligence”. They were nothing of the kind. They’re still tracking them down.
Spain’s multi-millionaires will soon be here. No chances can be taken. And of course, they’re right. But God, it was cold.
An hour slipped by. I found myself enjoying the conversation, whilst apologising profusely for not phoning ahead to check my visit was okay. We talked about the old South Africa, the new Rainbow Nation... and the importance of recent events in Soweto, when the Pretoria Bulls and their notoriously conservative fans were forced to move their Super 15 rugby final to South Africa’s most notorious township. And it went off like a dream, all races drinking, celebrating together.
We talked about crime, the changes in the country. We discussed football – Plaaitjies reckons the Dutch will win the World Cup, Alfred was sticking to South Africa.
Then they escorted me back to Room 17 at the Lemon Grass guest house. Fellow guests were a little bemused as I led Sam, not a bloke to be trifled with, into my room with a cohort. I showed him my passport.
He leafed through it slowly. “Okay,” he said, “It all checks out. Carry this with you at all times in South Africa. I’ll call you in the morning, show your round.”
With that, they were off. I was a free man. But take my advice, don’t take any liberties with the South Africans if you’re coming out. They’ll be all over you. But as long as you stay polite and carry your passport, you’ll be fine.
But I can’t seem to get my heart-rate down to under 100.