It's been a great trip so far. I've been to 3 matches in the past two days with a crew of friends from the Washington, DC area. First was USA - Algeria, which everyone saw on TV or read about at least.I'll upload the pictures that go along with this story as soon as I have a chance.
The day began with a tailgater at the US Embassy in Pretoria, where we drank Budweisers with U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Donald Gips (a heck of a nice guy and huge soccer fan), the president of the U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati, and comedian Drew Carey. Excellent hotdogs and pasta salad.
U.S. supporters had commandeered the bar across the street from the Embassy. (NOTE: Bob included a included a picture but you'll have to wait until I can reformat it for the web - its rather large)
The 4pm match at Pretoria's rickety old Loftus Verveld stadium was a amazing as it could have been - tremendous fans, Bill Clinton on the big screen, and a late goal. It really felt like history in the making, if you‘ll forgive the cliche. We sat two rows up behind the corner flag on the side where the US scored. We got some great new Tim Howard chants going, which you could even over the buzz of the vuvuzuelas. Best comment overheard in the U.S. section: “Don’t spill beer on the flag, dude.”
The jubilation of the game continued for long after the final whistle, but we rushed to the car to make it to our second match of the night: Germany vs. Ghana at “Soccer City” in Johannesburg. Just adjacent to Soweto, this futuristic bagel-shaped monster (it holds 80,000 + fans) must have been designed by the guy who did the set of the movie “The 5th Element.”
Tickets are not hard to come by - you can get them for below market value at parking lots, although the police have been seen arresting people for selling tickets, even at a discount. There are cops everywhere - apparently the government hired 60,000 extra beat officers for the World Cup who will stay on after we’re all gone. Some South Africans have complained that FIFA screwed up ticket sales for locals and that it was easier for their friends overseas to buy tickets. That combined with the fact South Africa was too far for many people to reach (it took almost 8 hours to get here from Dubai - Africa is huge!). Americans might have bought the most tickets, but airfares were $2000 from the US.
With no cops in sight, I bought an upper-level ticket for the Germany-Ghana match $45 from some guy from Alabama. The stadium was packed. The game was rather boring, and both sides were happy with the low score as they both advanced. Lots of cheery, beery Germans in the stands. I was reminded that it’s winter in the southern hemisphere as I pulled my ski-cap down low over my ears.
I’ve been based in Pretoria -- a medium-sized town known for its university and Embassies. It feels more American than European because it's rather spread out and there's not much public transportation. It is vibrant and hosts a mix of people. You hear Afrikaans in addition to Zulu and English. Fans of various nations have been parading around for days in their colors. On Thursday we took the (free for ticket-holders) train to Jo-burg for the Italy-Slovakia match. We met lots of South Africans on the train, including three friendly students who were concerned their country was getting a bad rap for its poverty and crime. Estes Park Stadium - where the rugby team scored their World Cup win in the movie "Invictus" and in real life - is located right downtown so we got to see quite a bit of the city. We passed townships and shantytowns on the way - a stark contrast to the plush gated homes in Pretoria. My friend Andrew and I agreed that downtown Johannesburg looks rather like Pittsburgh or Baltimore.
We sat next to some attractive Greek girls who were cheering for Italy, as were most of the fans. The tendency of Slovakians to dive and writhe drew the ire of the crowd and seemed to annoy the ref. Sadly for the Azzuri, Italy lost to Slovakia 3-2 despite a rally at the end. Now they have to go home now - probably on the same plane as France. Many Italians, dressed in blue and wrapped in the flag, were crying.
South Africans I’ve talked to (or heard on the radio) have seemed impressed at the determination the US team has shown in their three matches, and many folks seem to be becoming fans of the red, white and blue. We've gotten nothing but positive congrats from people all over - even the Algerian fans as they walked to their cars after defeat. Several Algerians came up an shook our hands and said “good match.“ Only one of them gave me the finger as I waved the stars and stripes. It’s likely though that local support will go to Ghana, especially now that Bafana Bafana (the South African team) is out.
Cheers - Neal