Tuesday, December 28, 2010

World Cup Diary - Part 7

I'm wearing a Oranje jacket. It's cut like a vintage MJ jacket. We take our seats and all around us are Brazilians, chanting songs in Portuguese and downing beers. As we look around the stadium, the drone of the vuvuzuelas is intense and the stadium is fill. I'd say it is the support is equally divided between Brazil and Holland.

It's great to see Robben and the Dutch team so close. The ground looks immaculate.

The anthems are sung, I put my hand to my heart as always when the anthem of my team is played. As the Brazilian anthem is sung, all around us the Brazilians sing along, hands to hearts. A cheer goes up when it finishes. The Brazilian fan closest to me rips off his shirt and starts dancing up and down, screaming at the top of his lungs. I wonder what he'll be like if they score a goal.

I don't have to wait too long as the Dutch defence is split apart and Robinho coolly sidefoots a goal through. The Brazilians around me erupt and I start to wonder if this will be a mauling... the Holland defence is makeshift as Ooijer has come in for this game. The cheers turn to outbursts of rage as the goal is disallowed because of offside. Later replays will show that it was a clear offside, but at the time it seemed like a harsh call.

It doesn't matter too much as minutes later, Melo puts a perfectly weighted through ball into the obliging gap between the center backs and Robinho cuts across the defender's blind side from the left and finishes calmly. Robinho is amazing to watch live. He's small in comparison to most of the players but even from the first whistle he just exudes so much confidence. He controls the ball so well and is able to hold onto it under immense pressure, his awareness is fantastic. Throughout the tournament, the skill of Robinho, Kaka, and Luis Fabiano has meant that Dunga has been able to play a very defensive team and get away with it, because teams cannot contain all three for an entire match.

As time goes by, the Dutch get a grasp on the game. My Brazilian friend has gone from ecstasy to the more usual location of a football fanatic - anxiety bordering on anguish bordering on frustration. He is constantly yellling, most of it in Portuguese but every now and then his friends have to apologise for him. I don't speak much Portuguese but it is quite clear that he is not saying very nice things. He's calling the referee a Japanese filhio de puta. When the ball gets near Robben, his yelling reaches another level. He cheers each time that Robben is clattered into, screaming at him to get up and I guess saying that he has nothing.

This Dutch team is getting back into it though. The keeper makes a great save from Kaka after a beautiful move which involves Robinho twisting and turning past three defenders in the tightest of spaces. Kuyt puts pressure and steals the ball from Maicon and tries to set up van Persie for a shot on goal. A foul on Robben leads to a free kick for the Netherlands. The free kick is taken, Julio Cesar come out to punch but the ball sails into the net. I notice a Dutch fan in front of me, a young kid with Dutch flags pinned to his hat. He has the tiniest celebration in the world at this goal.

From a corner kick, Kuyt flicks it on and Sneijder heads it in. He can't believe he has scored with his head. Now, Dutch fans seem to materialise from several places around me and have found their voice to celebrate.

Dunga and every Brazilian gets progressively more frustrated as the game goes on. There are challenges and dives flying in all the time, it feels like the Dutch are baiting Brazil or it could be the other way around. The difference is that this is the best game of football I have ever seen live, the control and movement of the players is amazing. They always seem to do the right thing with the ball and know that even the slightest mistake will get punished.

Van Bommel of course is the chief instigator and enforcer. Where he excels, Melo fails... as he commits a terrible challenge on Robben .... the difference is that van Bommel always gets away with it, but Melo is sent off. My Brazilian neighbour is incensed and leaps out of his seat and tries to jump the hoardings.... he is held back by security guards but thrashes at the fence in frustration. He returns to his seat, chastened but still raging.

Brazil have to change their tactics and Dunga brings on Nilmar. They push and push for the equaliser and do go close from several corners at the end of the game. The best chance probably falls to Huntelaar but he fails to put it away... it doesn't matter though as Holland hold on and win the game.

The joy on the faces of the Dutch is amazing, paired with the deep sorrow felt by the Brazilians. The Brazilian fans around me are disconsolate and trudge away.

For the Dutch, they can put behind them their terrible record against the Brazilians and have confidence that they can actually achieve it... they have beaten the best or second best team in the World.

As we leave Port Elizabeth and head back to Australia, I feel blessed to have had a great adventure following the team and World Cup in South Africa.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

World Cup Diary - Part 6

Sometimes it's the first step that seems the hardest. And then you realise that it might have been a mistake, and that each step is progressively harder. And so I have splurged on fantastic seats, Category 1, right on the halfway line, in line with the TV cameras. Every flight to PE is booked out. Not only that, but there are no seats on the connecting flights from PE to JHB to get us back in time for the flight back to Sydney. After investigating buses and trains it seems like we don't have a way to make it to this game.

Our saviour is the English receptionist. Her uncle is driving through PE on his way to his son's graduation from pilot school. She is able to organise us a lift with him and another backpacker tags along with us. His name is Karthik. He is not amused when we reference Karthik calling Karthik (a Bollywood movie that I thought was pretty good).

It's 5:30am as we wait in the dark for our lift to PE. I see a white hatchback and meet Uncle Bernard. We pile into the car and I find that he has brought a small dog along, who becomes my companion in the front seat for the journey.

Everything is going well as the four of us + one dog + suitcases in a small hatchback leave Cape Town just as dawn stretches across the sky. Bernard is polite as we chat through the usual introductions. After about an hour in, Uncle Bernie feels comfortable enough to start making some jokes. Before you know it, he's launching into anyone and everyone. It's the tour guide that is not in the books, even the quirky tour guides have nothing on this. Bernie says he is a soutpiel. His family is originally from Britain but settled in South Africa. Soutpiel in Afrikaans means salt dick, because he has one foot in South Africa and one foot in Britain... so his dick is dipped somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Bernie gives his assessment of Aussies, based on his time growing up with them in South Africa. A bunch of arrogant womanising drunks who love to surf sums it up. He seems to have got this image from the film 'The Adventures of Barry McKenzie' and in his slang refers to Aussies as 'Bazzas'.

As we are going along, we notice a clunking sound in the car. Bernie doesn't know what is going on but assures us that his car has been serviced recently and he has had the oil changed as well. We keep going but the clunking gets more insistent so Bernie suggests we stop, let the car cool down, check the radiator and stretch our legs. We come to a rest stop and wait for ten minutes. As we set off again, the clunking noise comes back after a few minutes and then we hear a thud. I hope that we have just passed a bump on the road but as we pull over and trace back along our path, we see a steaming hot piece of the engine has fallen on the road. It looks like what I imagine a meteor would look like, dead black, oddly shaped and alien looking. We need to get help so Bernie goes to the farmhouse opposite the rest stop. The owner is willing to help so we push the car back along the road and into his driveway. Bernie tells us the owner is a typical Afrikaaner farmer, he must have been about 6'2" but massively built. Bernie says he'd probably eat us if it wasn't against the law. He also said he'd probably fuck your wife and then kick her out but that is neither here nor there.

Our helpful farmer gives us a lift into the nearest town. The nearest place we could possibly rent a car is Albertinia, almost the middle of nowhere. If we fail there, we will need to go to Mossel Bay. We get there in no time as the farmer has a massive green 4wd and blazes across the road at upwards of 140km/h. As a sign of his general disregard, as he leaves his own driveway his car monsters over a potted tree that got in his path and he just accelerates through without a glance back.

Albertinia is a sleepy town, not much to see here. We stop at the petrol station which seems to be the main hub of the town. We find out from the petrol station attendant, who also seems to be running the tourist information office, that there is a bed & breakfast that might be able to help us. We go there and meet a charming old couple that offer to give us their daughter's brand new car to rent. They seem really trusting, as they only ask us for a deposit as an afterthought. As we are getting things organised, Uncle Bernie spies their daughter. He describes in graphic detail his psychic determination that she would enjoy sex in a variety of athletic and limber positions. Unfortunately, it is time to leave... and we head on.

We've lost just over an hour on our car ride so Bernie is now pushing our new car for all its worth. We pass a few interesting sites along the way, a stretch of road that is marked by the sign 'Hijacking Zone'. Any smart hijacker would just move to another stretch of road though, wouldn't they? We lock our doors to be safe just in case they haven't gotten to that level of thinking.

As we sit at the traffic lights just past this zone, a beggar comes to our window asking us for money. He's selling vuvuzuelas and other trinkets. I'm studiously avoiding eye contact. Bernie rolls down the window so the puppy can growl and snarl at him, tells the man to get a proper job and then says he'd give 1,000 rand for the beggar's sister. We drive off again.

Somewhere along the car ride, Bernie tells us why he has recently moved away from Johannesburg, where he and his family had lived for over a decade. Bernie lived in a walled estate, a fancy townhouse. I don't know how he affords that doing his stated career of petrol station fit outs. One summer's night, Bernie and family have another family over for a few drinks. It's a warm night, so they leave their windows open, have a joint or two. They bid farewell to their friends around 10 and turn in to bed. Bernie is woken barely an hour later. Men climbed in through his son's window and asked him who else was in the house. His son leads them to Bernie. There are five men, all ex-military from Mozambique. They don't wear masks, they don't need any disguise. They are not on any database and can't be found. Bernie and son are made to lie on the floor and their hands and feet are tied. They ask Bernie for his safe, but he says he has none and they believe him. They go through the house methodically and take everything of value, plasma tv, jewellery, even the money from Bernie's wallet. One man is left behind to watch the family, and he menacingly loads and unloads his gun in front of their eyes. The sight and sound of bullets is chilling.

After 4 hours in the house, a man puts a pillow behind Bernie's head and puts the gun to it. Bernie prepares for the worst but the man leaves. After 4 hours in the house, the five men leave with all the valuables and Bernie's wife. Bernie and son do not move for the next fifteen minutes.

The wife comes back. They had just used her to get past the security guard at the front gate. The car is found the next day, abandoned not far from the house. The men are never caught.

This incident happened a year ago, and Bernie is in the process of moving his family away from Johannesburg. He says Joburg is run by the blacks, and they are aggressive and resentful towards the whites. They drive fast cars, spend big and there are some places that you definitely shouldn't go to. I ask if I could go there because I'm brown and he says I'd be gone within minutes. Bernie seems to think that South Africa is going to get a lot worse before it gets better and draws parallels with the decline of Zimbabwe.

We finally arrive in Port Elizabeth, an hour and a half before kick off. Bernie is adamant that he wants to get a beer. It's the only thing he's had to eat since picking us up. We pick up a beer and Bernie has a drink and drives on to the airport, where we leave our luggage. We then say our goodbyes and head off to catch a bus to the game.

Now onto the game ....

So long 2010

A selection of the things I enjoyed in 2010 were being mesmerised by Massive Attack on the steps of the Opera House, having beers in the sun and watching the Sydney Swans, my family looking after me while recovering from a knee reconstruction, partying it up in Singapore, having Johnny Walker Blue at the casino to celebrate Fitzy's graduation, winning the horn in craps, mascara cross-dressing cigars football soulja boy dancing American gossip and allegedly getting herbally jerballies at the Halloween party, catching the pointless monorail to work, Chelsea winning the double, Elmander's goal against Wolves, watching Fitzy win the game with a last second goal, a random trip to Goulburn involving drinking and shenanigans, chaton for Fox 8 ANTM, brunch with Gam, Bea, Artee, Susie or Fairina, and road tripping to Newcastle where I met a local who declared his undying love for me.

Above all, the highlight was taking part in the mobility parking scheme. My friend Fitzy tipped me off to it after he broke his leg falling down a slight hill. After I did my ACL, as soon as I could get on crutches I got to the RTA to pick up the form and then got it signed by my surgeon. It's an amazing feeling knowing that you can park anywhere without having to worry about paying for it. A 1P zone becomes unlimited. I used to just want to park in great parking spots and just sit there all day. Everything becomes so accessible.. instead of spending ages trying to find and pay for parking, life was a breeze. It turned my hour long commute by train to North Sydney into a 15 minute ride across the bridge to park right in front of the building. I realised it is a great privilege, a great power, and the temptation to abuse it was so strong. I still have the expired permit in my car... been meaning to return it when I get the chance. I used to feel bad sometimes towards the end of the 3 months, when I could walk pretty decently... so I would exacerbate my limp a little as I approached my car. Now, it seems those 3 months are a distant memory, they go by so fast... but at the time, I think I made sure that I used the privilege as much as I could.

To the 6 people that read this (7 if you include me) so long 2010... and on to the next one.

World Cup Diary - Part 5

Well rested, re-energised it is time for Cape Town. Will the World Cup finally have gripped some part of South Africa?

We stay in the Big Blue backpackers. It has some fantastic reviews on the website. The hostel is run by an alcoholic man. His face is weathered as if he has been out at sea for days, there are deep cracks in his face. Almost as deep as the flaws in his logic as he engages in one long monologue. At first, I think they are conversations. There is no pause, no let up. He talks about anything, in the space of a few seconds veering from how Japan's team draws its strength from its samurai past to how much he loves bourbon for breakfast. His voice is amazing, the kind of accent that belongs in a Victorian garden from the turn of the century. It is the kind of voice you imagine talking about the colonies in a simultaneously dismissive and quizzical tone.

The receptionist/bartender is a lovely Canadian who has come on a holiday and never left. She has deep brown eyes and brown curls and most of the day there are lonely backpackers loitering around the reception talking about mostly nothing with her. The other receptionist is a short English girl who has family in South Africa.

We venture out around the Green Point area and go to the pub to watch the Korea versus Uruguay game. Every tv is showing the rugby, South Africa absolutely pummeling some unfortunate team. We have to ask to get the tv turned onto the game. It's a fantastic match. Unfortunately South Korea let themselves down with some terrible defending for both Uruguay goals. It would have been amazing to see them go through. We all know Cha Du Ri was a better player for the opposition... some of his crosses still haven't landed. He tried hard though, and every team needs a comedy player.

We hear Long Street is the place to go and so we head to the Dubliner. The place is absolutely packed and beer is about $1 Aus. It feels like your duty to consume and take advantage of this amazing low price to compensate for the extravagant pricing of the stuff in Australia. It's USA vs Ghana and I desperately want USA to win. They have the finest team they have probably ever had, led by Landycakes and Dempsey. Americans are passionate about the game and are endearing in their use of terms like 'power strike to the upper 90', 'midfield stripe', and 'PK'. It would also be great for the rest of the world if America did win it, so they would start giving them some respect instead of patronising them... oh wait.

Patrick Demspey is a fine actor if you want to believe that. I've never watched the anatomy show, my only encounter with his acting skills was his quite ludicrous portrayal of an ordinary man. In this advertisement, his friends are shocked and puzzled by his sudden transformation into an attractive man. He winks without moving his eyelids and replies - Just for Men.

We christen Clint Dempsey 'the Doctor' in tribute to his sharing of a surname with McDreamy. As we drink beer after beer, a few Americans join our chants of 'Give it to the doctor' as America have chance after chance. The cheering for Ghana drowns out our chants and I am crushed as Ghana get an ill-deserved victory against the valiant doctor, who did everything in his power to haul the US through.

The rest of the night is just flashes. I remember the club being mostly packed with guys but somehow remember dancing with two beautiful girls. I remember losing my magic coat, the coat that has saved me through many a cold winter, with deep pockets filled with everything you could ever need. I remember getting a lift home to the hostel but somehow getting a lift further up, ending up in the hills near the university campus. Finally I remember catching a cab back somehow to the backpacker lodge.

The next day is when I made the decision to never drink again. After 10 years of drinking, it was all becoming too much. It was not fun to lose control, to lose memories of the night, to lose whole hours, to lose magic coats, to lose money and maybe friends. Not to mention the hangovers that lasted well into the next day, or that what I really enjoy on a night out is good conversation with some friends, instead of just relying on alcohol to create the fun and silliness for you.

It was all part of the life changing experience that was Cape Town.

Being hungover certainly wasn't the best way to experience shark diving. Going out onto slightly choppy water to be handed a wetsuit and then jump into shark infested water, where only a cage separates you from one of the deadliest beings out there. I am a big fan of sharks though, I think their overbite makes them seem quite charming and I always think that they could beat a lion if their surfaces were matched (sort of like how Federer and Nadal played on a half clay/half grass court). I will have to do it another day but Ray did seem to enjoy the shark dive.

I had been trying each day along with the usual ritual of Facebook and internet gambling on everything relating to the upcoming matches to squeeze in some time to try and buy tickets to the upcoming matches. Finally, I was able to buy tickets to the game in Port Elizabeth between Brazil and Holland, the first quarterfinal of the World Cup. The game was to be played on the day before our flight out of South Africa....

World Cup Diary - Part 4

The day of the final group game, and we make the one and a half trip to the stadium. It is a late kick off and the stadium looks beautiful, I can recognise now that the structures around the stadium look like giant giraffes.

The crowd is about 80% Australian and 10% Serbian and the rest are made up of the Bafana Bafana. The Serbians are relatively subdued compared to the Ghanains from the previous game. I think the Serbian crowd has the highest disparity of attractiveness between the sexes.

We take our seats and are next to an Asian Australian. A true rarity in this part of the world. The crowd is nervous and I have huge chills down my spine as I raise my scarf in the air and join the crowd in singing the national anthem.

The game starts and it is frantic. Krasic falls over dramatically and his reaction provokes the crowd. From then on, each time this Swayze doppleganger touches the ball, a deep reverberating boo comes from the crowd. I tense as this Shane Watson lookalike is through on goal and knocks it to the right around the goalkeeper. Why is it that so many people look like Shane Watson but they don't look like each other? There is no offside flag and no covering defender, just an empty net. I laugh as he puts the shot into the side netting. I've never seen a sportsman be influenced so much by the crowd's reaction. He sees so much of the ball in the first half but it is comical how little he does with it. Eventually he is moved infield by the coach so that he can't hear the crowd, and is the first player substituted by Serbia in the second half.

We're lucky to end half time at 0-0, and look more positive in the second half. Maybe it's that we are playing with 11 men, or that it has always been our game plan to just wear the opposition out.

It's amazing to see Tim Cahill live. He leaps so high it's like he is on another planet, he can just hang up there. He scores and ever so slightly you start to think that it could happen. Then, it happens. At any level of football, from the park to the A-league (not a big leap), the casual fan is always screaming for a player coming through on goal to just shoot it. Usually the player just passes it around and the move fizzles out. This time, Holman does shoot and skids through past the keeper into the bottom left corner. The stadium goes mental and I'm hugging everyone in sight. I lose my voice screaming and we can start to believe. Just one more goal and we will be through. The whole crowd it seems is willing the team on. It almost seems like a formality now, the goal is going to come. It feels like we have resisted everything Serbia threw at us and now we just need to knock them out.

I remember what happened for the Bafana Bafana, in a similar position, getting the sucker punch from an unmotivated, barely there French team. I try to put that thought out of my head. But then it does happen to us, Serbia get the goal out of nowhere. We try to summon up the hope again. The Serbians are going crazy on the sidelines. Only later do I realise that they want to score again to avoid finishing last again. It is too much for Australia to come back from this. We all stay back to applaud the players, who allowed us to believe for a moment that the impossible could happen. A win is still fantastic and the team has done well to come back from the thrashing against Germany in the first game.

We leave Komatipoort the next day, giving a lift to an American who has gone even further into disguise than the usual Canadian flag. This American wears an Ivory Coast jersey and does not speak much and when he does so, it's soft spoken and polite. We take the quiet American to Nelspruit and motor on down to Cape Town....