Monday, July 19, 2010

Into South Africa - The World Cup

After three amazing weeks in South Africa, taking in the World Cup, diving with sharks, hiking and driving around the Cape, enjoying a 10 course meal on the beach and going on safari my mind is still racing with memories and relishing the unique experiences I was blessed to enjoy.

The trip was too memorable to cram it all into one post and to make sure I share it all, I wil break it into three parts: The World Cup, Exploring the Cape and Safari.

I began planning this trip a year and a half in advance, focused on making sure we had tickets to the games before we left.  Working with Destination South Africa we were able to line up match tickets, flights, an apartment in Cape Town and a 4 day safari at Pondoro Game Lodge.

The World Cup experience was filled passionate friendly fans, lots of vuvuzuelas, pre game and post game partying, beautiful venues and amazing matches.

We decided to go after group play when the elimination matches started, following the US route through to the semis.  

After traveling 17 hours from DC to Joburg, catching a 2 hour flight to Cape Town, turning back around the next morning to fly back to Joburg and grab a 3 hour bus ride to Rustenberg we were ready to take in the US/Ghana match (all the while trying to figure out what day it was, as my body certainly didn't agree with the time the sun decided to rise and set).

Driving to the game we were able to see the red earth Africa is so known for against the setting sun.  I found the choice of venue odd as Rustenberg is a relatively small mining town where little else but the game seemed to be worth stopping over for (unless of course you wanted to make your way to Sun City).

The match was filled with African support for Ghana (the only African team still left in the tourney) and was certainly the coldest night of the entire trip.  I found it to be a disappointing performance on the US part, and a game they could have won if the effort was there.  But after leaving the stadium and seeing the pure joy from 90% of the fans due to the Ghana result I was glad to see the nation continue to rally around them as the tournament continued.

After the game, another 3 hours bud ride, KFC in the airport at 4AM, waiting another 4 hours for our flight and a 2 hour plane ride to Cape Town we were able, and very ready, to settle into our apartment at Mouille Point.  We were situated directly across the road from the ocean with a deck looking back across an amazing landscape of Cape Town stadium, Lion's Head, Signal Hill, Table Mountain and downtown Cape Town.

We were able to pick up tickets to the Spain/Portugal game in addition to our US allotment prior to leaving the States.  The walk up to the stadium was memorable, with Spanish fans clearly outnumbering the Portuguese supporters, partying, chanting and dancing their way in.  After 30 minutes to get through a half assed security check we were 25 rows off the field watching Spain warm-up.

The game was electric, the play was dominated with Spanish possession and the work rate of David Villa up and down the left flank was astonishing.  Cristiano Ronaldo did nothing to persuade my current opinion of him as he spent an inordinate amount of time time throwing his arms up in disgust, diving on the field, complaining to the referee and using the utmost flair in the simplest of situations.

The Villa goal occurred right in front of us and as he slid to the corner flag just below our seats the place was going nuts with vuvuzuelas rocking and the Spanish fans merrily chanting.  After having gone to two games I could not help but notice the stark difference.  The venues certainly had something to do with the atmospheres at each, but the US/Ghana game felt like you were watching a JV game prior to the Spain/Portugal varsity match.

After the game we began looking for flights to Joburg for the Ghana/Uruguay game in Soccer City.  Unfortunately plane tickets were all $800+ and we figured instead of traveling to the game we would stick in Cape Town and buy tickets to the Arg/Ger game where the only travel we had to worry about was a 15 minute walk from the apartment to the stadium.

We ended up finding the ultimate salesman named Ahmed, texting us 5+ times a day to let us know all the tickets he had to every game even though we insisted all we wanted were tixs for Arg/Ger.  After a few days of haggling we were able to snag tickets for 1/2 the price of the flight to JoBourg.

Wading through an endless number of Argentina supporters and trying to find a bar with breathing room we wondered into the curiously empty Sugar Hotel in De Waterkant neighborhood of Cape Town.  As the pre-partying progressed we discovered the hotel was closed to guests and friends only, but were allowed to stay nonetheless; in all likelihood to the food and bar bill we were racking up.  The food was great and the location couldn't have been more perfect, pool side with a few of the fan parade that preceded each game in Cape Town.

We ended up chatting up some England supporters who were on their 8th World Cup.  After a bit of talking they were describing how they were at the Ghana/URU game and felt that the missed Ghana PK in the 120th minute might have been one of the most unique moments in sports and surely World Cup history.  As they explained, never has a home continent been behind one team (Ghana), and the collective silence in the stadium the moment the PK was missed was something that will likely never happen again.  With the entire stadium (minus a few thousand Uruguay supporters) fully behind one team that wasn't even the host country I'm not sure if saving a few hundred bucks was worth missing, but what can you do.

After missing the first Germany goal walking into the stadium, we were able to watch the Argentines take hold of possession, yet unable to do anything productive in the final 3rd of the field.  The German defense was impressive and their world class counter-attack was a sight to behold in person.  Their ability to take possession and drive down the field attacking the Argentina defense was done at such an amazing pace and with such precision that it made you really appreciate the German style of play (never ever thought I would be saying that).

As the Germans were unrelenting in their counter-attack, Argentina couldn't crack the German line nor put a dangerous dead ball on frame (and they had a host of opportunities), it was all to the massive disappointment of the ever active Maradona on the sidelines.  As the game got out of control with the Germans on their way to a 4-0 victory I found myself watching Maradona almost as much as the run of play.  The crowd cheered him on every time the ball came to his feet and he made a touch or two to get it back on the pitch, he was pure entertainment.

We rounded out our games with the semis in Cape Town where the Netherlands faced off with Uruguay. The amount of orange parading and partying around the streets pre-game was astonishing.  The fans were fun and ready to party as we found out during our pre-game festivities at Beefcakes, a gay burger bar which we were told by a local had the best burgers in town.

After burgers, fries, onion rings and some Carling Blacks we were treated to an amazing atmosphere and a fantastic game.  We were seated behind the goal that the Dutch attacked first and were two rows in front of the largest block of Orange fans in the entire stadium.  They were on their feet the entire game leading chants and cheers that somehow found their way above the vuvuzuelas and echoed out across the stadium.

As possession flowed back and forth to start off the game we were treated to an amazing angle on the best goal we witnessed, Van Bronkhorst laser into the upper right corner (watch it here if you haven't seen it, and watch it again if you have!).  If that ball continued on its path I swear it would have landed in  my hands, luckily the net was there.  The goal only heightened the intensity that the Dutch supporters poured into their team, chanting, cheering and dancing for 90+ minutes, eventually celebrating their teams 3-2 victory and trip to the finals.  I was psyched we got to see both teams in the finals play a match, and they ended up being the two best matches we saw.

We took in the 3rd place game and finals on a 21inch TV at Pondoro game lodge while on safari.  Waking up each morning around 5 to go on safari made it tough to stay awake for the games that were on at 8:30 local time, but I couldn't have been happier to see Spain prevail, especially after watching them play against Portugual.  Their possession oriented game that flowed through the midfield duo of the tiny Iniesta and Xavi was beautiful to watch (except for the finals, which was just ugly).

Overall, the World Cup experience was one I will never forget.  Every fan you encountered was happy to be there and celebrate their team and country.  No matter the match, supporters from all over entered the stadium drenched in their countries colors.  It was great to walk into the Arg/Ger game next to a group of Alergians done up in their countries colors.  The atmosphere was one of partying and celebration.

South Africa was a fantastic host nation.  The entire time I felt safe and secure, the people were always friendly and inquisitive, usually wanting to tell you that the other team they were rooting for outside of their own was the US (something I was a bit shocked by).  Sure there were the TIA (This is Africa) moments, which usually occurred at the airports, but all and all everything was first class.

While my first, this certainly will not be my last - already getting excited about Brazil 2014...