Sunday, April 4, 2010
Updated: April 5, 10:26 AM ET
Tips if you're heading to South Africa
By Brent Latham
If you are like most, you've thought about making that once in a lifetime trip to Africa. Home to nature in its wildest form, vibrant culture, and urban areas bursting at the seems with life, the continent has an attraction all its own. No wonder many fans will be drawn to South Africa in June for more than just the soccer.
And what better time to fulfill that lifelong urge to pay the continent a visit than this year, when South Africa will be the focal point of the sporting world? Americans seem to be responding in numbers to the lure of the first African World Cup, as the U.S. leads foreign ticket sales by a wide margin.
If you're one of those headed to South Africa to cheer on team USA, you'll likely be in new territory. At last year's Confederations Cup, I met a grand total of two American fans who had made the trip from the U.S. to see the team play. Certainly there were others I didn't meet, just not too many. So if you're not Mario Lima or Rajiv Kumar -- that adventurous pair from last year -- you may be wondering what to expect when the U.S. returns to the southern tip of the continent in June.
Taking into account that Confederations Cup experience, here's a little advice for fans headed across the Atlantic this June to accompany the American team on their latest African adventure.
The opening whistle: Getting around, and where to get to
South Africa is a larger country than many realize -- the 25th largest in the world by land mass, and almost twice the size of Texas -- so you'll be traveling quite a bit. The good news is that except for the coastal outliers, the World Cup venues are concentrated in the north, and the U.S. will play all its first-round games, and a possible second-round match, within driving distance of Johannesburg.
To drive, of course, you'll need a car. Getting one should be your top priority upon arrival. Rentals are cheap and readily available in South Africa, and yours will be your best friend once you get used to driving on the left. Suggestions that fans use public transport in South Africa are ill-advised at best -- the organizing committee's belated efforts to arrange transport are likely to be fraught with problems. Much frustration can be avoided by providing your own mobility between venues.
The Americans' first-round games are all at most a comfortable day trip from Pretoria, South Africa's executive capital (trivia: South Africa has three separate capitals). A charming, relatively manageable city, Pretoria is just north of Jo-Burg on a good road. The U.S. team will be based just outside town for the entire first round, and fans might consider a similar plan. Rather than searching for a number of different lodging options as the game sites move, you may be better off finding a longer term bed and breakfast, called guest houses, in this area.
Yellow cards: Avoiding the perils of South African urban life
Fans have been and will continue to be warned ad nauseum of the dangers of crime in South Africa. But an army of military forces, policemen, and indistinguishable hybrids of the two will be on duty throughout the country. You're not going to be assaulted at every turn, so be somewhat reassured.
However, it's a stretch to assume that South Africa's severe crime problem will vanish for a month, and as much as FIFA and the organizing committee would like to play it down, insecurity remains a serious threat to World Cup visitors. The vast majority of danger lies in the urban centers, and in the north the sprawling metropolis of Johannesburg is the place you'll want to largely avoid, at least after dark. It's not just the crime; Jo-burg has all the inconveniences that come with over seven million inhabitants packed into a relatively impoverished setting -- violence, traffic, congestion and sprawl.
So the recommendation to stay near Pretoria is not just one of convenience. Trading those urban hassles for the green expanses of suburbia will make your stay a more pleasant one. That's not to say you should be scared to visit and enjoy Jo-Burg and its cultural attractions -- far from it -- just do so with plenty of time, a good map, and attention to your surroundings.
Open play: Enjoy as many of the group games as possible
While staying in one place is a comfortable option to start out, there are also advantages to hopping around a bit at some point. The games in some of the more removed venues will provide the perfect opportunity to see more of this diverse country.
Smaller host cities like Nelspruit, Polokwane, and Rustenburg will host a number of first-round matches, and these otherwise sleepy areas will be geared up for their moment of fame. Tickets to games in those towns should be plentiful -- Nelspruit, for example, is home to just over 200,000 people, but its stadium fits 46,000.
When they travel to Rustenburg, many visitors may also want to visit the "African Vegas," Sun City. Whether or not you spend the night in Sun City, if you get an early start on June 12 you can include the nearby Pilanesberg Game Reserve in your day's adventure before the showdown with England.
If you do decide to visit some of the farther-flung venues, you can combine some appealing matches with equally alluring attractions. Looking for something to do between the Americans' opener and the Slovenia game six days later in Jo-burg? Why not make a day trip up to Polokwane, a welcoming city a few hours' drive to the north of Pretoria, to catch France versus Mexico?
Or head for Nelspruit for one of the matches there, and visit the famous Kruger National Park in the bargain. The entrance to Kruger, where you can motor among the wild animals to your heart's content, is not far from town. On the way back, you might detour through the small nation of Swaziland for a different perspective on life in Southern Africa.
Extra time: Hit the road after the group stage
If the U.S. gets through to the second round, their most likely round of 16 match will be in Bloemfontein, south across the immense cattle ranches and open plains of South Africa's heartland. If you've seen most of the north by now, a date further south would be the perfect invitation to explore other parts of the country.
Even if you are skeptical about the Americans' chances to go deep into the tournament, plan to spend some extra time in the country after the group stage. You didn't sit on a plane for so many hours just to head home prematurely. From Bloemfontein, you'll be within striking distance of the coast, and even alluring Cape Town. The road system is excellent, and you're bound to meet scores of fellow soccer fans and accommodating locals whichever way you turn, so be prepared to enjoy your own African adventure.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio, and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.