Mike D’Amato’s World Cup Diary

Last Days in South Africa

By - Jul 7th, 2010 04:00 am
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The one benefit of traveling for 28 straight hours is plenty of time to reflect on your trip.

Mike celebrates with Spanish fans after his last game in South Africa. Mike is the one NOT dressed as a matador.

As we said good-bye to South Africa and our wonderful hosts, Johannes and Ben Roos, our 2010 World Cup tour came to an end. The people of South Africa hosted a wonderful, world class tournament that offered much more than we expected with none of the predicted negative drama.

We thank South Africa for its hospitality and spirit.

I keep replaying one poignant moment that Dom and I witnessed, after Uruguay’s quarter-final victory over Ghana in penalty kicks. They played before 84,000 fans at Soccer City in Johannesburg. It was, to say the least, an “away” game for Uruguay.

The prospect of Africa putting a team into the semi’s for the first time ever put African fans in a united frenzy. The neutrals, too, were pushing for Ghana as the tournament’s Cinderella story and to show support for the African continent. Among the mass of yellow, green and red, no more than a couple of thousand devoted Uruguayans decked themselves out  in blue and white.

Uruguayan players celebrate with their fans.

The atmosphere was electric; when Muntari opened the scoring for Ghana, the place went up for grabs. The game was not that well played (except for Diego Forlan, my tournament MVP thus far), with a abundant errant passes in the mid-field and scarce displays of brilliance. For a game that ended with such drama and heroes and goats, it was fairly boring. Our party concluded that the U.S. was better than either of these teams, which proves my point that the tournament is more about survival and luck than about playing beautiful soccer.

After the winning penalty kick from the Uruguayan sub, Dom and I, as is our custom, ran down to join the winning side’s fans to take photos and partake in the jubilation. In the middle of this small, ecstatic celebration, a man in his 50s stood alone weeping with joy into the Uruguayan flag.

That’s the World Cup, right there.

No jumping up and down, no ole, ole, ole, no group hugs. Just a man privately savoring what he’d spent a lifetime hoping to see. Ten minutes later, his tears of joy were still flowing.

We’re Packer fans, too, in my family. I have friends who live and die with the Brewers and Bucks. I know true blue patriots. But I can never imagine any of us displaying a mixture of national pride, love of sport and unity of purpose that brought this man to tears as his countrymen won a soccer match in hostile territory thousands of miles from home. For the first time in 40 years, Uruguay moved on to the semi-finals.

We had only one game left, the Spain-Paraguay quarter-final. It was a night game, so we gave host/driver/bodyguard Johannes a break and drove ourselves to the center of Jo’burg’s FIFA World Cup scene:  Sandton City, home of Nelson Mandela Square, location of ESPN’s pre and post-game chats.

Sandton is the post-apartheid white urban center of  Johannesburg, complete with huge upscale malls, hotels and office buildings. My speculation is that after apartheid was struck down and majority rule established in South Africa, many businesses and investors abandoned downtown in fear of what they thought was coming. As in many American cities, this dis-investment was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Sandton boomed and downtown Johannesburg became the dangerous wasteland that has given the city a tough reputation around the world.

South Africa travel tip: Do not to rely on GPS to drive anywhere. GPS will get you there, but it can’t distinguish safe routes from dangerous ones. Thus our trip to Sandton took us on an unexpected, and some may say dangerous, venture through the very heart of the Alexandra Township on a Saturday afternoon.

The townships are home to the black poor. Families live literally in row after row of single-room sheet metal shacks. Goats run wild, people fill the streets, a man with scissors and a chair gives haircuts on a street corner. Alexandra is poor, but a certain vibrancy and sense of community can’t be denied. Neither can the deep entrepreneurial spirit that gives life to the thriving outdoor markets.

The streets of Sandton, too, are packed, but with the “beautiful people” from around the world who had gathered to eat, drink, shop and catch the much anticipated Argentina v. Germany game (some believe this game to be the true World Cup final). The Ghana national team showed up at Sandton and caused a small stampede as people jostled to get photos. (One Ghanaian man leaned to me and said that they should slap them for blowing that game, not fight to take pictures.)

Well, at least the food, drink and people watching were good. Germany destroyed Argentina 4-0 in perhaps the most surprising result so far. Aside from a fairly accurate early shot by Higuain to the near post, Argentina never threatened to score.

Our last live game was the quarter-final between Spain and Paraguay, at Ellis Park. We went through our normal routine: Johannes drove us to a busy street above the stadium, we parked the car on a public street and paid the “attendant” 50 Rand ($7) to “rent” (read: paid for protection) public street space. We had a beer at our favorite pre-game spot, a low-rent Portuguese hotel with numerous bars on several levels; a good spot to fraternize with folks from different countries and compare notes on the games.

We walked to the stadium, where Dave bought a $300 ticket for $100 (note to self-never buy another World Cup ticket in advance). Spanish fans, confident that this would not be their last chance to paint their faces and don matador costumes, partied there.

Like Ghana v. Uruguay, Spain v. Paraguay was a boring game with an exciting and unusual ending. Three penalty kicks in three minutes and boring? Two penalty saves in three minutes and boring? A winning goal that hit three posts in the waning moments and boring? I’m sorry Spanish fans, but yes. Paraguay played with an almost perfect strategy — survive for 80 minutes and hope to get a break. They played this strategy to perfection, except for missing their golden opportunity on a late penalty. Otherwise, Paraguay never really threatened to win the game. Spain played with little of the flair they are known for.

In the end, Spain went through and Paraguay went home. What happened to that all-South American final the pundits were crowing about? Europe is king again, with three teams in the semis.

Here’s how I see it: Germany is a machine and I can’t see Spain competing with them. The Dutch are a team of destiny, even though Uruguay, the Italy of South America, plays the kind of defensive, well-organized and opportunistic soccer that often doesn’t lose (notice I didn’t say often win) in the World Cup.

A Germany v. Netherlands final. These teams know how to play when the temperature dips below 50.

So goodbye to live games and loud stadiums in South Africa and hello once again to Transfer Café!

I can’t wait, after watching the world’s best on the world’s biggest stage, to get onto the pitch and play again myself on Wednesdays and Fridays. Pulling my sore old body out of bed on Thursday and Saturday mornings, well, that’s another matter.

Categories: Sports

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