We had seen World Cup matches on consecutive days in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Rustenburg and Nelspruit, followed by four days of sightseeing in Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
It had been an incredible first week in Southern Africa, crammed with unforgettable experiences. Sitting on Spion Kop hill at the half way point of the trip, surveying yet another picturesque slice of African history, the three amigos discussed the proposed itinerary for week two.
It was then that we realised a more daunting journey lay ahead. The completed route, ink-stained on our increasingly tattered map, seemed a journey of insignificant distance relative to the mammoth stretch of road that lay before us. But Togel Scousers are not prone to intimidation. We are no strangers to overconfidence however, particularly when the context is of a footballing nature. With that I went to buy another biro – and prepared myself for another week of farcical conversation, nonsensical radio commentary, breathtaking views and ludicrous driving, oh, and some World Cup football.
We completed our 2000+km southbound journey – which had begun in Kruger Park two days earlier – arriving in Cape Town the evening before Portugal were due to play the curiously named ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’.
Cape Town just has to be seen to be believed. It feels removed from the rest of the country, and indeed the continent. It is more easily comparable with Sydney and San Francisco than Luanda and Lusaka. Table Mountain, arguably Africa’s most recognisable landmark, comes into view long before you reach the city limits; drawing you in to the incredible metropolis and all that lies within. We arrived just as the sun was setting, without a hotel or a match ticket, but unfazed by the prospect of securing either.
The following day match tickets initially seemed hard to come by, as inexperienced supporters caved in to desperation, paying grossly inflated prices, which inflamed the street value. Unperturbed by the black market and the grey skies, we sauntered around the architectural statement that is Green Point Stadium before casually purchasing tickets for the equivalent of £14. Those of you who recall the score line and possess a brain will realise that worked out at £2 per goal.
My former flat mate is the current match analyst of the Portuguese side, and he was understandably excited at the 7-0 drubbing. I’m sure the Portugal camp will be dreaming of lifting the Jules Rimet trophy at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium on July 11th – although European pretenders to the World Cup crown will have to be at their best to overcome the very evident South American threat.
The following morning we woke to the rare prospect of a day entirely free of both football and travelling. Adverse conditions at sea prevented a visit to Robben Island, and instead we had to settle for the view of the infamous prison that held Nelson Mandela from the top of Table Mountain.
I was disinterested in the two-hour wait for the death-defying cable car, the route of which stretched almost vertically up the famous rock before disappearing into the cloud known as the ‘table cloth’. Alerted to the possibility of a human-powered ascent, we opted for the walk instead, despite the lingering effects of the Cape Town nightlife. The sign at the bottom of the mountain suggested a challenging investment of 2.5 hours was required to reach the summit. Eight minutes later Mick had begun his dissent, about four steps in. With the Atlantic Ocean stretching out behind him, his claims about altitude sickness were about as water tight as the North Korean defence.
Within an hour however Danny and I were looking down on Cape Town from the top, the cloud having the decency to shift west, offering us superb views in every direction in the process. As football tourists from around the globe posed for photographs, I looked out along the south coast in the direction of our next port of call, in complete awe of South Africa. With a heart full of admiration, a mind full of expectation and a mouth full of conversation, we reluctantly bid farewell to Cape Town and headed to Nelson Mandela Bay.
Having seen representatives from all six confederations play in our first five games, we were largely indifferent about the prospect of watching any more World Cup football. No more so than concerning England’s must-win encounter against European minnows Slovenia. I was aiming to avoid a rant about the English in my SA 2010 columns but we’ve encountered too many of Ingerlund’s finest, carving my resolve. I promise to keep the following to a single sentence:
Being English is about driving a German car to an Irish bar for a Belgian beer, then on the way home grabbing an Indian curry or Turkish kebab, then sitting on a Swedish sofa and watching American sitcoms on Japanese TV and still being suspicious of anything foreign – only in England can you get a pizza to your home faster than an ambulance, only in England do the banks leave the doors open but chain the pens to the counter, only in England do the supermarkets make sick people walk to the back of the store for prescriptions while healthy people get their cigarettes at the front; only in England do unimaginative, unoriginal football supporters travel abroad en mass to intimidate anyone who has the audacity to be born any other ‘race’ but English, singing ‘God Save the Queen’ without believing in God or the monarchy, but just as an excuse to utter the words ‘no surrender’; only the English travel to a nation that taught the world how to overcome racism, but see nothing wrong with singing ‘Britons never shall be slaves’; only the English moan about vuvuzelas and then rely on a trumpet to start every song; only the English can make Wayne Rooney seem like a level-headed social commentator, and only the English complain about their tabloids destroying team morale and then boo their side, buy copies of The Sun and break into the changing room to ‘give it’ to the manager.
That being said, England are impossible to ignore; they travel in numbers, comprehensively representing the most extensive professional club network in the world, and always display an impressive if unimaginative set of banners. The laboured defeat of the Slovenians did not make the footballing world sit up and take notice, but the team remain unbeaten (at the time of writing) and deserve their unspectacular qualification to the knock out stages.
In truth we had only included an England game in the itinerary to observe the fans and to watch Jamie Carragher play. The fact he was suspended did not stop us from hunting him down and having a quick chat about Liverpool. Thankfully he made more sense than his inebriated dad who we had sat with for most of the match. We also bumped into Roy Hodgson, who is rumoured to be on the brink of a high profile role, possibly at Anfield. For the record, he refused to comment, but agreed at least to pose for a picture.
Next up was a trip to hectic Durban, where Brazil and Portugal were to contest their final group game. As is often the case where the South American giants are concerned, tickets proved elusive. We settled for our first experience of a South African fan park, the goalless encounter unfolding in the Durban stadium behind us. Despite an extensive search, £300 was the cheapest ticket we found, which was £100 more than the combined cost of the previous six matches we had been to.
Masking our slight disappointment, we then headed for the beach in search of whales and surfers. Then with the tank full of petrol, the trainers full of sand, and the memory card full of photos, we set off towards our final destinations of Soweto and then Johannesburg, concluding the journey in the city where it had began two weeks earlier.
As night fell on our last evening in South Africa, we soaked up the view of roadside fields ablaze with fire, beneath an orange moon and a red sun separated by a huge African sky. If you want to contemplate and experience the wonder of God’s creation, then come to Africa, where evidence abounds. If you want to encounter a celebration of humanity then travel to the group stages of a World Cup, where fans from all over the globe congregate, unified by the international language of the ultimate social tool.
The opening fortnight of the tournament has shown South Africa to exceed every expectation. Fears about security have proven to be unfounded, and every question about the capacity of an African nation to host an event of such magnitude had been answered. Of course no World Cup tournament passes without negative incident. Added to that, this is not a country devoid of social problems – you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to encounter the hangover of apartheid.
We have met local idiots who claim real South Africans don’t follow ‘Bafana Banana’, but should instead only support the white-dominated Springbok rugby team. But the handful of encounters with the mindless minority should not be allowed to detract from the reality of a people and a place brimming with warmth, with compassion, with hope.
South Africa continues to teach the world about the dangers of ignorance and the possibilities of co-existence, and the World Cup serves as its latest offering. The continent and the country has earned our respect, our admiration and our gratitude.