My sympathies were with the Dutch. Rather endearingly, the Dutch team only booked its hotel accommodation for the World Cup to last until 5 July and thus had to find themselves a new hotel once they did better than they expected. The Sunnyside Park Hotel, to which they moved, is an extremely pleasant but middle market establishment which almost certainly never expected to house any of the overpaid footballers in South Africa for the tournament. All the other teams, and the celebrities, stayed in Sandton, Johannesburg's most affluent and whitest suburb. The Dutch alone moved out of Sandton. I know their hotel well, and hotels well known to me are not usually the sort of places frequented by celebrities and could, indeed, be termed WAG-free zones.
Several people have asked about fascism and football. The key figure here was Mussolini, who saw soccer as a key tool for creating national unity and international prestige. He created the Serie A as the first national league in 1929 and, once the World Cup had been launched in 1930, he made Fifa an offer it couldn't refuse to hold the 1934 Cup in Italy. It was, of course, essential that Italy should win (they had already won the first European Cup), so Mussolini himself invited a favoured Swedish referee to run the semi-final between Italy and Austria, in which the Italians were allowed to barge the Austrian goalkeeper into his net from three metres out. The ref duly gave a goal. Mussolini naturally selected the same ref for the final, Italy v. Czechoslovakia, and the ref again failed to notice a rather prominent Italian handball, so Italy won.
The press here seems flummoxed by the failure of the players who were much-vaunted pre-tournament to shine – Mssrs Ronaldo, Rooney, Messi and Kaka – so somewhat half-hearted attempts are being made to promote Miroslav Klose and Arjen Robben into the vacancies. Football fans seem to demand stars to personalise their dreams and attachments, though most fans choose their team first and then who to idolise within it, roles which naturally change down the years as players come and go. This makes the objective assessment of players very difficult. If you ask the average manager who was the best player he ever saw, he will normally choose either someone he played alongside when young or someone in the team he manages, or seek refuge in saying that there are so many good players it’s hard to choose. I once heard Bill Shankly asked that question and, quick as a shot, he replied ‘Dennis Law’, the sort of remarkably honest choice you might have expected from Shanks: he had never played with him or managed him, on top of which Law was a thorn in Liverpool’s side.
Yesterday's game between Holland and Uruguay was the last in Cape Town – tonight's semi-final will be in Durban and the final in Jo'burg. Quite probably Cape Town's many visitors in the last month failed to notice that they could still drive on roads named after Hendrik Verwoerd or even on a main boulevard named after Oswald Pirow, a prewar cabinet minister who became an open Nazi. This is not a comfortable situation for many Cape Town residents who would like such names removed, along with such others as Settlers' Way and Jan Smuts Drive. But there the problem starts. Smuts was clearly a racist but he was also South Africa's greatest prime minister and his statue still sits outside Parliament. So, many whites who would be happy enough to ditch Verwoerd and Pirow would like to keep Smuts and, as descendants of settlers themselves, say that you can't get rid of Settlers' Way without implying that a substantial segment of the population is illegitimate. Which, of course, is exactly what the apartheid law against racially mixed marriages made the Coloured (mixed race) population feel.
If there’s one thing this World Cup has exposed even more cruelly than the emptiness of England’s footballing pretensions, it’s the shallowness of TV punditry. The assumption that ex-stars - and Lee Dixon - can talk as good a game as they once played is one we know well enough to avoid in other fields. Artists do not generally make good critics. ‘I want whatever he’s having,’ Alan Shearer said after the motor-mouthed broadcaster Danny Baker was allowed onto the BBC sofa for a few minutes a couple of weeks ago. Baker had delivered himself of a few jokes, a string of chancy speculations and one very canny observation: ‘England aren’t playing well enough to go out yet.’ England proved him wrong, as it turned out, by going out playing very badly indeed, but that isn't the point: as a pundit, with that comment, Baker had done the business. Shearer, though, is a void, as uninspired as he is uninformed. He has nothing fresh or insightful to say about why England failed so miserably in South Africa. Why should he? As an ex-England captain, he is part of a long-standing institutional problem, not its solution. Which is why, at the end of the game against Germany, his instinct was to get in ahead of the tabloids with the first kick in the traditional blame game – England failed, so the manager must go.
Whatever happens next, this has been a good World Cup for Europe. It's not just that the Dutch and Germans thoroughly dispatched Brazil and Argentina – the latter almost a rout, presumably costing Maradona his job (Dunga has already gone) – but three of the last four are from Europe. This despite the early exit of Italy, France and England. This matters in Fifa politics, and Fifa is bigger than the UN. There are already 207 Fifa members entered for the 2014 World Cup; the UN has only 192 members. This is not just because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sneak in separately from England. The same thing goes on elsewhere: thus China is a Fifa member but so are Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau and Mongolia. And of course while the UN is always badly in debt, Fifa has billions in the bank.
When I was four my father decided to teach me about football. He had been a star of the Lancashire Combination League, scoring 120 goals in one 40-game season, after which Liverpool signed him. I asked him about the 120 goals. Well, he said, it's not as good as it sounds. Ten of them were penalties. I asked how many penalties he missed. He looked surprised. None, he said. No footballer should ever miss a penalty. Never ever.
As we get to the final stages of the World Cup it’s worth looking at the track records of the major football nations. To hear the hullabulloo from the losing English camp one would think England was one of them but actually it has only made the last four twice ( one win and one 4th place). This compares with the other six winners as follows:
Now that we're down to the quarter finals it's perhaps worth noting the Ladbrokes odds: Brazil 9-4, Spain 3-1, Argentina 7-2, Germany 6-1, Holland 7-1, Uruguay 14-1, Ghana 33-1 and Paraguay 40-1. The long odds on Ghana are not something to mention here in South Africa where the fact that this was supposed to be Africa's World Cup is still a sore point. Marcel Desailly, one of the French cup-winning team of 1998, says that the reason African teams haven't done better is that it's still too early for Africa. ‘Local players in the African leagues, no matter where, battle to cope with the level at a global tournament, the pressure exerted at this level and the intensity of the game,’ he says. Dismissing this, the Times columnist S'Thembiso Msomi angrily writes that South Africa, with by far the most resources and best technology, should easily have had the continent's top football team following the advent of democracy in 1994 but that the early promise of 1996 (winning the African Cup of Nations) has been squandered by endless factionalism within South Africa's FA. Much the same, he argues, has happened to South African's political leadership in Africa, for much the same reasons
After last night's World Cup games, Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands and Germany are through to the last eight. One has the strong feeling that it's unnecessary to play the other games, that the eventual winner is already in the above four. What is very striking, after the boring slugging matches of the group games, is how easily and massively these four have imposed themselves, scoring lots of goals against opponents who were, after all, in the top 16. Perhaps it is a mistake to have a group stage at all; the whole tournament would be so much better as a sudden death event like the FA Cup – though of course the point of the groups is to guarantee every team at least three games on the big stage.
England's ignominious exit from the World Cup has launched the usual storm, including here on this blog. Perhaps the most surprising suggestion so far is that Maradona is a good manager and that England could do with the likes of him. The Sun, inevitably, demands that the next manager be English. Given England's pivotal position in the game, it's worth pondering. One statistic unearthed by the debacle is that fewer than 3000 Englishmen have qualified for the top UEFA coaching certificate, a fraction of the number in most rival countries, and already an indicator that the FA may need to look abroad.
After Germany’s complete demolition of England yesterday there will be many post-mortems, starting with demands for the head of Fabio Capello. But the English players never once looked fresh, energetic and as if they were enjoying themselves. They came into the World Cup tired and stale after a season in which most of them had played some 60 games: not only far too many but far more than any other national football schedule requires. The English game is also weighed down with foreign imports. The results were all too obvious yesterday, with a thirty-something English team run off the park by a German team which is the youngest in the tournament and bounding with energy. English football lacks an upcoming generation like that because their place it would occupy is already taken by foreign professionals. If England wants to do better than this, it should cut the Premier League to 17 clubs (providing a 32-game season), restrict each club to two foreign players and abolish the League Cup.
Now that we're down to the last 16 things begin to get interesting because – at last – defensive play is no longer enough. Yesterday was especially interesting because Uruguay are beginning to look like serious inheritors of their heady tradition. It is often forgotten that Uruguay has a tradition in the World Cup surpassed by only Brazil and Italy. In the other match the professional money was all on the USA but Ghana triumphed nonetheless – and South Africa was thrilled, for the public has to an astonishing degree accepted the government's injunction that this is Africa's World Cup and that we must therefore all support the Black Stars, the sole remaining African team in the tournament.
South Africa's exit from the World Cup – the first time ever that a host nation has failed to get through the first round – hasn't punctured the buoyant mood here. Partly because of the victory against the former world champions, France; partly because it was, deep down, always expected; partly because the team was so low-ranked that it did well to be competitive at all; but also because France and Italy and all the other African teams except Ghana also went out. If such a fate could befall even the title holders, it was no disgrace.
I seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest by referring less than respectfully to the notion of ‘soccer colonialism’. Perhaps the subject is broader. No doubt the gladiators who hacked one another to pieces for the delectation of the ancient Romans were heavily drawn from colonised races. What is certainly true is that the team photographs of any of the leading European squads look very different today from the way they did in 1966 when – it's hard now to credit it – neither of the two finalists, England and Germany, had any players of colour in their ranks.
We met Seish a few days ago, when we stopped at his pub on our way from big-game spotting in the Pilanesberg National Park – where we saw elephants, giraffes and the USA squad’s tour bus – to Australia v. Germany. After making sure none of us were Australian, he gave us a lecture on the long-running sporting rivalry between South Africa and Australia (in everything from rugby and cricket to swimming and running). He then brought out a T-shirt with the slogan: ‘I support any team that plays against Australia.’
Today's match between Portugal and North Korea has stirred memories of the encounter between the two teams in 1966. Today the South African Communist Party formally wished success to North Korea as fellow Communists but what mattered more in 1966 was that North Korea played its matches up in England's north-east and their plucky performances – especially the victory against Italy – won the hearts of Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough fans and they flocked to cheer them on. That game was more of a contest than today’s 7-0 thrashing: North Korea led 3-0 before Eusébio scored four and Portugal won 5-3.
My neighbour's gardener, a Malawian called Charles Banda, lives in a shack in Khayelitsha, Cape Town's biggest squatter camp. 'It was really dreadful after South Africa lost to Uruguay,' he said to me yesterday. 'Most of my neighbours were watching the game on TV, either at a shebeen or at a friend's. They were drinking as they watched, of course, and by the end they were very angry and disappointed. They've always said they would avenge themselves on foreigners once the World Cup was over but now they didn't feel like waiting for that. So groups of them started going house to house looking for foreigners. They caught two of my friends and shot them. I ran away and slept at a friend's last night.'
Are you washing your hands as much as you should? Sure? We’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, as the viewing public is discovering, sufficient unto the day is the World Cup coverage thereof. Wads of cash are already being blown on wagering the outcome – north of £1 billion by British punters alone. The England team’s script is written already, and all that awaits is its pitiful enactment. 'We' grind out a series of low-score stalemates, as in last Saturday’s deadlock with the US, and scrape through to the quarter-finals or more rarely the semis, only to crap out on penalties after another bore draw, this time against a former fascist dictatorship. Vide Italy 1990, France 1998, Germany 2006 etc. I’m backing North Korea this time, as the lone standard-bearers for utopian socialism left in the tournament. If it’s a big dark red horse you’re after, look no further.
The World Cup atmosphere has suffered a noticeable deflation after the 3-0 thumping of South Africa by Uruguay and Nigeria's 2-1 defeat by Greece. Everything suggests that South Africa is about to become the first ever host nation not to get through the group stage of the Cup and that Africa's biggest country is also all but out. The local consensus is that it's time to write off these two and support Ghana and Ivory Coast instead, but the larger probability is that after all the fanfare, Africa will flop again simply because the continent's undoubted talent on the field is matched by a completely disastrous mismanagement of the game in almost every African state.
Durban advertises itself as 'the warmest place to be for the 2010 Fifa World Cup'. It's been a sunny 20 degrees here, while the temperatures in Bloemfontein, for example, have plummeted at night to minus five. The esplanade is crowded with tourists, as well as groups of Zulu dancers dressed in 'traditional' clothes (no shirts, lots of chest muscles, wooden shields and spears) and local artists making sand sculptures of crocodiles eating people (with the inscription: 'please donate money and help save the poor man'). The bars are full of foreign men and local women. Thousands of tourists have descended on the city – most of them European, most of them men – and the European-African (mis)match is evident. Every evening we have been approached by groups of young women: 'I am from Zimbabwe, I do not care about football, but I came for a month vacation during the World Cup.' Everywhere you look, large sweaty white men are buying drinks for attractive black women.
In the run-up to the World Cup there was a constant rumble of threatened strike action by groups keen to take advantage of the unbeatable blackmail opportunities the staging of such an event presents. Now, however, we have seen wildcat strikes by the stadium security guards in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg – with a quite serious clash between police and strikers in Durban – and by bus drivers, so that fans at some Jo'burg games have found there was no way for them to get home. We are also threatened by a civil service strike, and electricity workers have rejected a 7 per cent pay offer (inflation is 5 per cent) and are demanding a fantastical 18 per cent by the end of the week or they will plunge the country into darkness. Other groups of workers are watching, poised to follow suit.
Fifa are much exercised about all the empty seats and are investigating. The reason given by most commentators is the failures in public transport in getting people to the ground but there are other problems. First, the suburban railway system has been arriving at the Port Elizabeth and Jo'burg grounds with empty passenger cars. This is because criminal violence on those railways is so common that anyone with a choice avoids them. Ditto black taxis.
It was strange last week to leave behind the flag-smothered pubs and cars of England and arrive in Italy, where you could almost be forgiven for forgetting the World Cup was on at all. One of the local bars has a big(ish) screen outside, but there are no feverish announcements about when Italy is playing. Gaetano, the caretaker at the nearby five-a-side pitch, was raking up the cut grass on Saturday morning in a Brazil shirt. 'No one likes the Italians this year,' he said. Because they're unlikely to retain the trophy? 'It's like watching dead men play.' He made some polite murmurs about England's chances (this was before the dismal draw with the USA), but said he thought Germany would probably win (this before their 4-0 crushing of Australia).
It should have long been obvious but is now beyond doubt: the South African vuvuzela needs to be banned. Stupidly, in the run-up to the Cup the local authorities and media celebrated it as an authentically patriotic piece of equipment although doctors long ago testified that to have one blown next to you throughout a football game would leave you with permanent hearing damage. The noise is considerably louder than a chainsaw and not much more melodious and it is seriously bad for the game as well as the spectators. A stadium full of such horns guarantees that the players can't hear the ref's whistle or their team-mates' words and that broadcasters are drowned out. The only hope lies in the fact that the stadiums aren't full – several thousand seats were going begging at the England-USA match at the anyway small Rustenburg stadium and the Nelson Mandela stadium in Port Elizabeth hasn't yet been more than two-thirds full.
People have said there hasn't been much demand for tickets in South Africa, but no one seems to have told Patrick. For the last two months he has been sleeping outside the Maponya Mall in Soweto. He wakes at 4 o'clock in the morning, to stand alone in front of the Mall's doors. By the time they open at 9 o'clock a long queue has formed for the Fifa ticket centre, but Patrick is always first in line. He can only afford Category 4 tickets, which cost R140 (about £12). We asked him about tickets for the England-USA game. 'England tickets are like gold,' he said. Even in Category 1 (which cost £110)? Even in Category 1. 'I will try to find tickets for you, but there is no chance it will be successful.'
So, finally we've kicked off. South Africa v. Mexico was pretty dull and scrappy, a typical over-cautious World Cup opener with both sides desperate to maintain position. Neither could afford to lose this game whereas a draw keeps them alive. But, that said, South Africa, ranked 83rd in the world, didn't really look much inferior to Mexico, ranked 17th, and certainly the fans here liked it. (The fact that Mexico were able to equalise so quickly made one wonder whether it was only when they went one down that they really turned it on a bit.) The last few days have not been easy. The Opposition Democratic Alliance is still trying to resurrect the corruption charges against President Zuma that were conveniently dropped as soon as he came to office. Zuma's lawyers have frantically pleaded that to continue with the charges now would jeopardise the World Cup. Since the whole country is up in arms against anythjing that could jeopardise the Cup, this is a smart plea if one with a brief life.
On the way into Soweto there are dozens of signs that say: 'Welcome World'. Since our first evening in the pub in Pimville, Zone 5, drinking the local Castle beer and eating pap, surrounded by the flags of Algeria, Ivory Coast, Slovenia and Paraguay, we definitely have felt welcome. Our hands were shaken over and over again. 'We hope you are happy here... Is everything all right?... We love you... Thank you for coming... Pleased to meet you... We are glad you are visiting us.' 'We', by the way, are Matt, my former university English teacher who still finds my English mistakes 'to be very disturbing', Simon, a BBC journalist who does not have any corrupt friends to supply us with England-USA tickets, and Ben, an Englishman who has been living in Holland for the last eight years and does a passable imitation of Afrikaans.
I think it must have been in 1994 that I first felt relieved England hadn’t qualified for the World Cup finals. Since then I’ve got into my stride; I was positively pleased when they didn’t make it to the Euros in 2008. It’s partly anti-patriotic schadenfreude, I’ll admit; there’s so little to love about the England football team – its style of play, the extra-curricular behaviour of players and fans alike. But more than that it’s being saved from the enervating cycle of rising optimism, hysterical excitement and inevitable disappointment we’re all put through whenever they do make it. Spared the xenophobic front pages, the St George flags flying from car aerials, the blurring of news coverage into sports coverage into news coverage of fans watching sports coverage, you have a chance to enjoy the football for the sake of it, and even to fall in love with a foreign team: Holland in 1978, Cameroon in 1990, France (Zidane!) in 2006, Brazil every time they step on the field. Unfortunately, this time they have made it, so let’s get the Big Question out of the way before the matter gets confused as Gary asks Alan and the Sun asks Steven and some young Tory toady asks David at PMQs. Can England win it?
With only days to go before the start of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa is awkwardly poised between euphoria and anti-climax. The multiple crowd injuries at Nigeria's practice game with North Korea due to an audience stampede were a sharp warning both that expectations are madly high (besotted Nigerian immigrants are blamed for the stampedes) and that no amount of preparation can make anything foolproof.
Just over a year ago I had a friendly breakfast with Mo Shaik, who was being widely touted as the probable next head of the South African Secret Service. I asked him if it would be a challenging job. He looked thoughtful and said: 'Well, there are quite a few men with turbans and long beards who would like to use our soccer World Cup to make, shall we say, an explosive political statement of their own.' Mo was duly appointed and has since turned predictably silent and invisible. In the last two weeks, however, there has been growing media anxiety that al-Qaida will try what Mo was hinting at. One American security analyst has said there's an 80 per cent chance of an attack but how he came up with that number is anyone's guess. One thing that's certain, however, is that South Africa is wide open to international criminals of any type.
The World Cup in South Africa is on the brink of chaos. Transport and electricity workers, realising the fabulous blackmail possibilities of tournament disruption, are either already on strike or threatening strikes during the event and other groups of workers are poised to emulate them. The state electricity company is so worried about the power supply that it is handing out warnings that it may cut power to many users in order to guarantee that the floodlights don't go out on games. Householders have been told that they may need to switch off all appliances except their TVs (so that they can receive announcements of coming power outages). Sex workers have been making loud and angry declarations that security regulations are being invoked to cramp their trade. South Africa's police chief has announced that he is hoping against hope that the US team will not get through the opening round since that will signal President Obama's arrival and an enormous increase in the security load.