On the rocks
So that’s it for Nigeria, who fell short in the most entertaining game of the tournament so far, and Bafana Bafana. Now Ghana must achieve a point against the Germans to rescue the script for Africa at least partly. I’ll save a look at the fates of this continent’s teams until after then – for now, the cold evening contains a warm, crackling fire just a few metres away from me here in wonderful Plettenberg Bay, so I’ll add a little to a blog I began a few hours back before heading out for a short while longer.
Chill, fire or otherwise, these are certainly days of extremes. North Korea v Portugal yesterday was played amid a deluge in stark contrast to the radiant weather that the day before had brought – premium seat or not, yours truly has rarely received a drenching like that at a football match. It didn’t really matter though. Green Point Stadium, which is pretty much an all-round triumph in terms of planning – its concourses spacious and similarly arranged to those at the Nou Camp – became what I’m told was its most raucous yet as it filled with sizeable pockets of noisy Portuguese support. Not a North Korea-supporting Chinese actor in sight from my vantage, though by the end they’d probably slipped out to audition for something a little more rewarding.
You couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Koreans – 7-0 it may have been, but funnily enough it wasn’t a match you left thinking the winners were really all that good, or the losers all that bad. North Korea, playing to their standard system albeit with Hong Yong-Jo pushed up a little this time, are just fine when doing their thing – a decent international side, easy on the eye, well organised. They could have scored in the first half. You suspect that the task they faced after the second goal was just something too far. Kim Jong-Hun’s subsequent abandonment of what had served them so well, of the plan that is their very being, threw them into chaos as they pushed up and were picked off accordingly. Harsh, but the World Cup is a harsh beast and they know that now. The coach stood alone, inscrutable, exchanging a word with nobody, for the final half-hour. The players’ faces as they trudged off in front of me looked truly shamed, humiliated – you wanted to leap over the wall and tell them that, really, they’re better than that. In a small way, you genuinely worried for them. Would moves abroad, and a little more tactical variety, work positively for some of them or would it detract from their essence? It will be hard, if not impossible, to prise locally-based players away – which is a shame. Right-back Cha Jong-Hyok plays in Pyongyang and impresssed me a lot in both games. Hong Yong-Jo, their best player overall, may be easier to steal from Russian side Rostov.
We dried off in the MTN Tent, scene of so much activity on Saturday night, in front of Switzerland and the completely beguiling but frustrating (and therefore doomed in this round or the next, sadly) Chileans, before watching a similarly profligate showing from Spain back at the apartment. If Torres has got all that out of his system now, they’ll have a chance. But currently, and ominously, you’d have to say the only really clinical team so far – even if you don’t think they create enough to be attractive – is Brazil. It is going to take a lot to beat them. They’re the most tactically secure team in the tournament, even if you wouldn’t think you were watching the Selecao.
And then, largely at the insistence of yours truly, it was a 6am start today as we set off on the 450km haul towards ‘Plet’. It was worth it – time was bought for a wonderful detour and breakfast stop-off in the village of Grayton, off the beaten track around 150km east of Cape Town. The Oak & Vigne Cafe, owned by Justin and Alexandra, is situated in impossibly Middle Earth-esque surroundings – almost the souped-up cliche of countryside you’d find somewhere like Provence. I chatted to a few locals, largely upper middle-aged folk who’d made their money elsewhere, who were far more concerned about England’s fortunes than the imminent travails of Bafana Bafana, the national team being pretty much swatted aside as a discussion topic. Perhaps it told a tale or two about a few attitudes here when you go rural; not that anybody we met was anything but pleasant.
A half-hour drive back to the main road and it was mountains to the left, relatively unprepossessing plains to the right until we hit the Garden Route, taking lunch in craggy surf junkie paradise Victoria Bay before making a few further segues towards beachy areas as we neared Knysna. We made a side trip to Buffels Bay, location of sweeping, beautiful sandy beaches that rang with an emptiness, an end-of-world feel that grew when the vista was compared with the sparse but joyless man-made surrounds on this remote stretch. The waves crashed, and grew, while blank, boarded-up holiday homes listened on. Perhaps the eerie, almost post-apocalyptic sense was appropriate given that the disgraced France squad had trained just a few miles away until the day before – and returning to the car to find them two goals down against Bafana Bafana felt rather appropriate.
Half an hour later and we had made it to Plet – me to my hostel, my travelling companions to their slightly upmarket boardings. I scampered immediately to a shack adjacent to my place, that was screening the game for a small, boisterous crowd numbering about ten. Malouda scored within two minutes of my arrival; the place fell near-silent. It soon perked up – I often speak of the Arsenal crowd reacting with singular (for our country) over-emotion to highs and lows during a game, but they’ve nothing on many of the supporters here. When Tshabalala missed at the end, the howls of opprobrium suggested he had cost them the tournament itself – and the hero of the opening game was still being muttered about long after the final whistle as Windhoek lager after Windhoek lager was drowned in sorrow. Few, from any walk of life, think Bafana Bafana merited anything more than they got from this tournament – but I’ve been surprised by some of the local criticism and reluctance to give credit. The failure of South Africa to truly assert itself on the world’s football stage is taken very seriously by the average World Cup watcher I’ve met so far, despite their respectable overall showing.
Dinner included a remarkable meal of calamari while we watched Nigeria, joined by News of the World journo Dan King and involving yet more Windhoeks. I’m flagging once more as you can possibly tell. Who’d have known that Slovenia v England, probably the most difficult match for English fans to reach and certainly the one that seemed likely to be a dead-ish rubber, would present an occasion that might hand us more home truths than we might dare acknowledge just now? There’s only a very small English contingent milling around in Plettenberg Bay – most will fly across from Cape Town – and it’s difficult to take too much of the temperature. We’ll be on the road at 9am – attempting a little more sightseeing along with the remaining three hours or so of our journey to Port Elizabeth. It’s probably for the best that we steep ourselves in pleasing aesthetics ahead of the event, after all.