By: Trevor Kew
On the morning of June 25th, the final day of the group stages at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I met my friend Mike Wilson at OR Tambo airport outside Johannesberg under the huge soccer ball in the arrivals lobby.
We’d barely had time to exchange the usual greetings between old friends long separated before I felt obliged to deliver the bad news.
“We’ve got to get to Port Elizabeth for a four o’clock kickoff tomorrow,” I told him. “But hey, at least we’ll get to see more of the country this way.”
Mike, having just endured a nearly two-day journey from Calgary to Jo’burg via London, looked less than impressed at the thought of having under thirty hourse to drive nearly one thousand kilometres down to the Eastern Cape city of Port Elisabeth.
It was part of the gamble when we’d purchased TST-7 tickets following Uruguay’s progress in the World Cup. For those of you unfamiliar with the TST (Team Specific Ticket), it is a wonderful set of tickets that allows you to follow one team’s progress through the group stage. Should that team qualify for the knockout stage, you follow them until they are eliminated, at which point you follow the team that beats them (and so on until the final). If they do not qualify for the knockout stages, you follow the first place team in their group.
Since the big teams sell out long before they even qualify for the World Cup itself, we made a cunning plan to bid for Costa Rica TST-7s, as the Central Americans were atop CONCACAF’s table at the time. They promptly began to choke. Mike, through a sheer stroke of genius, bought Uruguay tickets the moment after it was determined that the two nations would meet in a playoff for the last CONCACAF place at South Africa’s World Cup. Either way, we had tickets to the World Cup Final.
A second place finish for Uruguay in Group A seemed realistic alongside France, Mexico and South Africa and would have meant a Round of 16 match at Ellis Park Stadium, about forty minutes from OR Tambo airport.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Mike over a typical artery-clogging South African breakfast of boerewors sausage, fried eggs and incredibly fatty bacon. “I’ve got it all worked out. We pick up our rental car, get onto the N1 highway – bypassing Jo’burg almost entirely – spend the night in Bloemfontein where we score tickets to the Switzerland-Honduras match, wake up early the next day, drive to Port Elizabeth, get a hotel, get to the stadium early, and watch Uruguay vs. South Korea in the Round of 16. Easy.”
Having grown up with me since the age of six in the small mountain town of Rossland, British Columbia, Canada and having travelled with me to Cambodia, Morocco and Spain, Mike has more knowledge than most about the usual outcome of my best laid plans; we’ve dragged mountain bikes through snowdrifts in Rossland, run out of gas in the Sahara Desert and run away from dogs in the hills above Granada—to name a few. And so it was with concern, I’m sure, but not really surprise, that Mike found himself piloting our grey Chevy Aveo through some of the dodgier streets of central Jo’burg, swerving to avoid pedestrians and crazy minibus drivers. We finally made it to the N1, missed our exit, and ended up in a suburb called Florida. Hmm.
Bloemfontein proved easier to navigate, especially as our hotel happened to be less than ten minutes’ walk from the stadium. Tickets
Photo from fOTOGLIF
were ridiculously easy to come by: we scored two right behind the team benches for less than fifty dollars US each. Quite a deal, I reckoned. Even though neither of the teams were particularly big draws, Switzerland still had a good chance to qualify if they beat Honduras.
It would be nice to say that every match you attend at a World Cup is an amazing experience, but it was dreadfully poor in truth. The Hondurans did a lot of stepovers and danced around. The Swiss lumbered forward time and time again and tripped over the ball. The goalkeepers each made a couple of decent stops. People in the crowd around us didn’t seem to understand the rules and kept yelling at the ref for bizarre reasons. Mike fell asleep twice. The only positive was watching the South African fans, who ignored the match and performed some of their signature group dances in the stands. The match ended 0-0 and sent both teams, deservedly, out of the tournament.
As we headed for Port Elizabeth the next day, I worried about the match we’d be seeing. Would it be any good? After all this driving, and the dreadful Swiss-Honduras match, would Mike miss out on the same exciting introduction to World Cup soccer that I’d had when I’d arrived two weeks before?
Luckily, South Korea and Uruguay delivered with a fantastic 2-1 match to kick off the knockout round. Mike was so excited by Suarez’s incredible eightieth-minute match-winner that he bought a Uruguay jersey (a fact that hasn’t exactly endeared him to locals, given Uruguay’s 3-0 thrashing of South Africa. I shudder to think what will happen to us if Ghana meets the same fate tomorrow). Uruguay are no slouches, by the way. I’ve seen them play three times at this tournament and they’ve long been my outside team to win it all. Who knows?—they’ve done it twice before (albeit not in the last half-century).
In soccer – as in life, as in travel – the big events, big names and big attractions do not always live up to their billing. Some of the best times I’ve had in South Africa have been when plans haven’t gone right: chasing ostriches down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, for example, after taking a wrong turn. Multicoloured Xhosa villages hundreds of miles from tourist destinations. Afrikaaners offering us a free place to stay after we’d forgotten to book a hotel.
I was originally disappointed when I found out that Uruguay’s side of the second round contained few of the heavyweights I’d originally hoped to see. I’m not now. For me, one of the greatest parts of travelling in South Africa is that nothing, not even World Cup soccer, ever quite follows the plan here. Maybe the famous Afrikaaner phrase “ust maka plan” (“let’s make a deal” and I’m sorry as I know I’ve spelled that wrong) finally makes sense.