Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Marathon is Underway

Yesterday was the first day of a 4 day marathon of a ‘Match-a-Day’, where we would travel to various stadiums for different group stage games. We are based about 30 KMs NE of Pretoria and the stadiums we will be visiting in this 4 day period are Soccer City, (twice including yesterday), Ellis Park and The Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg. Ellis Park is just a touch closer than Soccer City, both in Johannesburg and both about 1.5 hours by road, whereas Rustenburg is about 2.5 hours away to the east of Pretoria.

The first thing we have learnt is that we need to leave approximately 4 hours before kick-off to arrive in order to arrive in good time to ‘blag’ our way into the Park & Ride, get to the stadium and through various security & ticket checkpoints, and have a leisurely stroll to our seats, via the beer & food vendors.

Day 2 of our marathon was to Ellis Park to see Slovenia V USA. We left with plenty of time & with the aid of Lord Vader, (our friendly GPS unit), we found and sneaked our way into the Park & Ride nice and early. The atmosphere was exciting inside the stadium with a huge turn-out of USA fan, mostly decked out in the Stars & Stripes, but I did see a few ‘Elvis Presleys’ around the place. It was very encouraging to see so many Americans supporting their team, especially when it is considered a minority sport in their country.

The Game itself was a cracker, with the Slovenians taking an early lead with a cannonball of a shot from all of 25m. The USA defence was all over the place and it was not long before the inevitable 2nd Slovenian goal came, putting them 2-nil up at half time. Yates and I chatted at half time about what a dismal showing the USA were putting on and that they needed to use their midfield players a bit more, stop back-passing so often and maybe bring on a more attack minded substitute. The 2nd half started with a solitary piece of brilliance from Landon Donovan who had been poor throughout most of the 1st half. He beat his marker down the right-hand side, took the ball in from the by-line, and just when the keeper thought he was going to pass it across the area, he blasted it straight through the keeper for the goal.

Could USA mount a comeback...? USA had taken a more attacking approach to the 2nd half and even though the Slovenian were still able to mount some good attacks, the game had definitely swung towards the Americans. With less than 10 minutes to play, the USA got the break they needed when a long clearance from the keeper was headed down into the path of Beasley who needed no invitation to blast it past the helpless Slovenian keeper....

At 2-2 the momentum was now fully with the USA, and when 5 minutes later they scrambled the ball into the net from a free-kick, we celebrated as if they had won the game, only to be deflated by the goal being disallowed. FIFA’s policy of not showing replays on the big screens meant we had no idea why the goal had been ruled out, but the buzz in the crowd suggested a foul or hand ball...?? We would have to wait to get back to our accommodation to watch the replay on TV, and we and the rest of the world were none the wiser.... Shame, but it was a great game full of excitement and fervour, and even though the USA deserved the win, a comeback from 2-nil down for a draw was a good result.

We left the stadium quickly as we wanted to get home in time to watch the England v Algeria game on TV, and luckily the organisation of the Park & Ride was excellent, and we were in the car and leaving the Bez Valley car park within an hour of the match finishing. After a sprint back out of Jo’burg, and another trip down the Worst Road in Africa, (photos coming), we were home just in time for kick-off. On reflection, if we had missed the game it would have been no loss, as England played poorly for the first 45 minutes, and only marginally better for the 2nd. To give credit where credit is due, the Algerians put on a master class of efficient defence, and played a fast paced passing game that left England in the dust. Unless England pull something out of the bag against the Slovenians, who have played very well so far this tournament, it could be an early exit for my beloved team.

Day 3 of our marathon was to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium outside Rustenburg to watch Australia v Ghana. This was a longer trip so we left marginally earlier just in case there were problems with traffic. The trip was a good one along well-maintained motorway, (a toll motorway), and was an enjoyable drive through the country. We arrived and parked up with plenty of time and made our way to the stadium, which was packed with the green & gold of the Aussies.

It was another interesting game with the Aussies starting with a bang and the Ghanaians must have thought that the kick-off was half-an-hour later. Australia went 1-nil up after 12 minutes after the Ghanaian keeper fumbling a shot from a free-kick, (in the style of Robert Green), allowing an attacker to net the rebound. The turning point of the game came 15 mins later when Harry Kewell was adjudged to have handled the ball on the line, for which he was sent off and the Ghanaians scored the resultant penalty. Again we did not see the replay at the game and had to wait to watch the TV later to see what had happened. When all is said and done, whether Kewells handball was intentional or not, it did stop a goal from being scored and laws of the game dictate that a red card and a penalty should be given. This changed the complexion of the game as Australia now had to defend with 10 men for the remainder of the match, whilst the Ghanaians had their tails up and went in search of a winning goal.

Australia just about held on for the rest of the 1st half, but did manage to mount a number of creditable attacks during the 2nd half, 2 of which they really should have scored from. Regardless of this, the Ghanaians could not breach a well marshalled 10-man defence and the game ended in a draw, not the result either side wanted, but at least Australia had score both a goal and a single World Cup point, equalling New Zealand’s fine effort (with a game in hand!!!).

We were in no hurry to get home after the match, which was good as it was a bit of a shambles trying to get the bus back to the Park & Ride. This was the first time that I can say the organisation was less than perfect, with a silly queuing system that funnelled 100’s of people into an ever decreasing gap to get on the buses. We stood in this scrum of a queue for 45 minutes before we managed to get a bus, by which time the queues had almost disappeared, except for the one we were in. Anyway, with the queue for the bus, and the queue to get out of the car park and the inevitable back-ups on the roads and motorway, it took a mammoth 5 hours to get home... I won’t complain though, we are at a world class event with many thousands of other people and it’s no worse than the epic journeys we had getting home on the trains at the World Cup in Germany in 2006.

Today’s game is at Soccer City at eight-thirty tonight, where we get a chance to watch the mighty Brazil take on the Ivory Coast. As the game starts late, I envisage another late night trip home, but I am soothed in the knowledge that we then have a 2 day break from watching live games and we can finally relax and recuperate back at the lodge.

It’s a hard life......

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