South Africa and the World Cup

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I just got back from one of the trips of a lifetime.

Firstly, there’s the World Cup. It’s the biggest sporting event on earth (sorry, Olympics!).

Then you’ve got the first World Cup in Africa, a football-crazy continent, an occasion that was long overdue.

And lastly, there’s South Africa. What a great country and what great hosts for the 2010 World Cup.

It was a trip that had to be taken, and I’m unbelievably happy to say I was there.

We arrived in Johannesburg on June 12 and spent 16 days in and around that part of the country, attending 6 games in the tournament: group stage matches USA v England in Rustenburg, USA v Slovenia and Brazil v Cote d’Ivoire in Joburg, and USA v Algeria in Pretoria, and first knockout stage matches USA v Ghana in Rustenburg and England v Germany in Bloemfontein.

In between games, we spent some time with our good friends Nigel & Celeste and Aditya, whom we have to thank profusely for giving us places to stay in the Joburg suburbs of Krugersdorp and Sandton, respectively.

We traveled to Kruger Park for three days, during which we saw four of the “big 5″ game animals (no leopards!) as well as a ton of other wildlife. We stayed in a lodge with a view of the Crocodile River just outside of the park. I have to thank Celeste and her relatives Dalene and Louis for showing us around Kruger. I’ll post a separate photo gallery from that part of the trip at some point.

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Back in Joburg, we visited the black township of Soweto twice – once on a tour with a stop at the Hector Pieterson museum, which commemorates the beginning of popular uprisings against apartheid, and a second time to dine at the famous Wandie’s Place shebeen (a local bar/restaurant). We drove through the the Lion and Rhino Conservation Park in the northern suburbs of town. In Pretoria, we stopped by the Voortrekkers monument, the Union Buildings and Church Square. And, thanks to Nigel, we spent a night at Sun City, the world-famous resort nestled in the hills near Rustenburg.

It was a lot of travel. And much of it required getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road. But it was well worth it. South Africa did a superb job organizing this tournament. People were welcoming, security was spot on, the facilities were in great shape… everything was just well done. My only complaint was the highway out of Rustenburg! (and the park & ride lots there!)

South Africa, aside from being a beautiful country, has some great cuisine as well. From simple steaks to various types of game meat to seafood from neighboring Mozambique, we ate delicious food at reasonable prices almost everywhere we went. The local wine and beer were perfect for washing all that great food down. I gained 3 kilos.

And then there was the football… some stellar moments.  The United States’ amazing comeback from 2-0 down versus Slovenia comes to mind, including the US goal that would have made it 3-2 (instead of the final result of 2-2) had the referee not been an idiot. Then there were the rapturous scenes when the USA scored in the last seconds of the game against Algeria, therefore winning their group and setting up an ill-fated date with Ghana in the round of 16. The USA v Ghana match was entertaining, despite the outcome and the USA’s exit from the tournament, as we were in a corporate box next door to Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer. Many pictures were taken. And then there was England’s goal-that-wasn’t-counted against Germany, although the Germans looked good value to win the match anyway.

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Soccer City stadium

The atmosphere around the stadiums before, during and after matches was also something to behold. The Brazilians win for most animated fans, both at the stadiums and beforehand at places like Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. The Americans, said by FIFA to have bought more tickets than people from any other country (South Africa aside), were also lively and came dressed up for the occasion (who says we don’t love soccer!?). England fans sing like no one else. It was a carnival all around, every where we went. And South African vuvuzelas, while a noisy annoyance when watching these games on TV, were actually not hard to get used to inside the stadiums.

I could go on for ages. I’ve probably use more superlatives in this post than any normal grammar or style guidelines might dictate. But it was really that fun. My only regret is not making it down to Cape Town or Durban, which I hear are lovely places.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that and let the photos do the talking… when I get around to posting them…

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