Sunday, June 13, 2010
06/13/2010 Parties, sun … and a goalie's blunder

The clouds stayed away, the trumpets honked and English and American fans met in good spirits to make the special relationship a special rivalry, write David Smith and Owen Gibson in Rustenburg

It was a spill altogether more welcome to the USA than that which has dominated headlines of late and left the England goalkeeper wishing the South African bushveld would swallow him up.

Thousands of England fans who had converged on a remote mining town in South Africa trooped away disappointed last night after Robert Green's error earned the USA a 1-1 draw.

The din of vuvuzela horns, combined with the England supporters' brass band, made for an unusual atmosphere and drowned out the traditional football chants in the open bowl of the Royal Bafokeng Stadium. It was well into the second half before the first chants of "In-ger-land" and "God Save the Queen" could be heard drifting into the chilly night sky during what was a disjointed England performance.

In response, American fans chanted "USA, USA" and, more inventively, "We don't need a Queen". Vice-President Joe Biden had been into the American dressing room an hour before kick-off to wish the team good luck and Barack Obama had relayed a message to the team.

It appeared to have done them little good when Emile Heskey played in captain Steven Gerrard, who gave his team the lead after just four minutes and sent the huge number of English supporters into raptures. But five minutes before half-time, the ball squirmed agonisingly from Green's grasp and into the net following a Clint Dempsey shot and the USA players and fans celebrated wildly.

Green described the error as "regrettable". "It was a mistake," he said after the game. "The important thing is not to let it affect you for however long is left. That is what you prepare for mentally. You don't prepare mentally for making great saves and playing the perfect game. You prepare for trauma.

"It is regrettable and not what you want to happen but that's life and you move on. You hold your head up high and get to work in training. It won't affect me psychologically. I'm 30, I'm a man, and you have hardships in life and prepare for them."

Security appeared tight for a match speculated to be at the top of would-be terrorist hit lists. There were patrolling police cars and bikes and a helicopter flew above the stadium.

Assistant chief constable Andy Holt, leading a contingent of 12 British police officers liaising with South African colleagues, said before the game: "It's very good natured, we've not had any arrests or incidents reported to us involving British fans. There are lots of US and England fans having a drink together."

England fans have travelled thousands of miles in past World Cup finals to see their team play, from Monterrey in Mexico to Sapporo in Japan. Now it was the turn of Rustenburg to experience a little culture shock. About 10,000 English supporters were expected to converge at the 38,646-seater stadium, although Fifa officials said they had sold more tickets to American fans.

The US support was evident in numerous flags and hats, in one fan's Abraham Lincoln rubber mask and another's stars and stripes dressing gown, but inside the stadium it was the cross of St George that ran along the upper tier with names such as Addlestone, Calverton and Scunthorpe on show.

England's contingent poured into Rustenburg throughout the afternoon with hats, scarves, facepaint, shirts, flags, plenty of songs and good humour and a new weapon in their armoury â€" the vuvuzela. The pre-match buzz â€" literally â€" suggested the plastic trumpet, long a staple of South African football, had been fully adopted by the visitors. Traders outside the ground were selling earplugs.

Meanwhile locals in this sleepy town, set among rolling bushveld plains and small hills in the north-west of the country, stood in their gardens and on street corners to witness the spectacle of the Three Lions roadshow. The occasion appeared to give a healthy shake to preconceptions on both sides. England fans spoke of South Africa as a beautiful and friendly country that defied its reputation for violent crime. South Africans said they were impressed by the behaviour of England's once-notorious following.

Among those with positive experiences were Alex Hunter and Lee Hewetson, both 25 and from Newcastle, who have quit their jobs to visit 20 countries, starting with South Africa and the World Cup. They went to Port Elizabeth for the world's biggest bungee jump, then took a 22-hour train back to Johannesburg.

Hewetson said: "It was full of black South Africans who said in all the years they've been taking the train, they'd never seen white men on it. It was jovial. There was good banter and singing through the night. We didn't sleep." The pair then took a minibus taxi â€" again rarely used by tourists â€" from Johannesburg to Rustenburg.

John Scammell, 68, from Barnet, was equally positive after flying to South Africa via Ethiopia. "I only have praise for what I've seen in this beautiful country. People misrepresent South Africa. We've been into townships and seen no trouble at all, just happy, happy people ready to talk to you and welcome you."

The sentiments were echoed by Richard Lane, 26, an accountant from London: "The whole nation is behind this, whereas with the London Olympics everyone is divided. We watched the first game in a bar in the Sandton district of Johannesburg and everyone was cheering. The whole thing has a good feeling."

Vocal American fans, draped in red, white and blue, also loudly proclaimed their support. There was little evidence of Barack Obama-inspired digs at "British Petroleum", more a sense that the special relationship could become a special rivalry.

"England is a big match," said Chris Kelble, 32, an oceanographer from Miami, who spent $2,000 (£1,400) and took a full two days to fly over here. "This is the first time people in the US are talking about soccer. This is my first time in South Africa and everybody here is very friendly so far."

There were only a handful of bars and cafes on the main road beside the Royal Bafokeng Stadium and they began filling up rapidly with both English and American fans from early afternoon.

Hungry fans crowded into Minty's Tuck Shop, a corrugated tin structure with a plain concrete floor and bare light bulb. Giant cooking pots sat on an ageing stove connected by a pipe to a gas cylinder.

The pots contained traditional South African food including "live chickens" â€" meaning they had been slaughtered by the owner, Grace Molefe â€" along with barbecued meat, samp, pap and a sour porridge known as suurpap.

"English people are all coming to try the suurpap but they don't like it," said Molefe, 50. "This is the busiest day we've ever had. The English fans are behaving well."

Outside Minty's, where beers being sold at 10 rand (less than £1) were being sunk by both sets of fans, cries of "USA, USA" mingled with the more familiar "In-ger-land".

Back in Britain, streets around the country fell quiet as millions crammed into bars and pubs or congregated around TV screens in their front rooms to watch the game. Those in sight of the London Telecom Tower, formerly the BT Tower, kept up with events on a 60m-long screen attached to the top of the building, which was visible for miles around.

A crowd of more than 15,000 filled Manchester city centre to watch the game on a giant screen while thousands congregated in front of screens in Newcastle's Times Square and in Millennium Square in Leeds.

Back in South Africa, England fan Dan Hough said: "We've got hotels, hostels, flats all sorts. Transport is the one thing that has been an issue â€" logistically it's a bit of a nightmare â€" but everything else has been awesome.

"The people have been great. We've felt so safe, which is the strange thing. Before we came out everyone was telling us to be careful. But once you get out here, it doesn't live up to its reputation, everyone is really friendly. They just want you to have a great time."

Hough was in a group of supporters who paid £180 for their tickets, which cost around £100 at face value. "The allocation by Fifa has been poor," he said. "We [England] had 6,000 tickets and it's always the way."

There was also a big crowd, and a performance by the England Supporters Band at a "Cafe & Butchery" that had been renamed "Network Cafe". Its iron fence was draped in England and US flags. Its harassed manager, Victor Rangaka, said: "We're overwhelmed. We ran out of cold beer here. The delivery was late. I hope there's another one coming."

Owen Gibson
David Smith ? Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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