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Posted by Mark Young
JOHANNESBURG -- Among the odd quirks of covering the World Cup are the surreal moments that always come at the end. Jumping out of the "World Cup Express" in the middle of a downpour (sans umbrella) to beat the all-time traffic snarl leading to Yokohama Stadium on finals day in 2002 became a tad mind-bending as neon signs flashed by. Yet four years later it was easily topped by the Zinedine Zidane head-butt heard around the world. And now I'm getting a front-row seat to something rarely seen in professional sports: athletes exuding charm on the eve of the biggest game of their lives.
A couple of days ago "Clockwork Oranje" became fellow guests at my hotel. I anticipated disruption and got irresistible Dutch casual cool instead. A nod from Wesley Sneijder in the lobby, a regular coaching coffee klatch in the lounge, and exchange of greetings and good wishes with Rafael van der Vaart, Andre Ooijer and Eljero Elia on the elevator. More importantly, it seems the entire team embraces the wonderful fans that have painted South Africa with goodwill and oranje in the last month.
Not too many oranje wigs and hats have been allowed in the lobby, but the players have happily posed for photos and signed autographs for the fortunate few who have passed muster with the fine security corps that have provided my safe passage for the past month (many, many thanks for all your diligence and hard work).
Bert Van Marwijk observes the scene with a knowing smile. This might be old (crazy Dutch) hat to the Netherlands head coach, but it's new to me. I thought watching Joan Rivers promote "A Piece of Work" on Charlie Rose's show on South African television would be my most surreal moment on this trip. Then on Friday I went to a nearby lion park and saw a troupe of World Cup referees being rounded up outside the gift shop. When Jerome Valcke said a different referring system would be in place for Brazil 2014, I hadn't anticipated that the shoddy bunch of officials in South Africa would be fed to the lions to facilitate this. That didn't come to pass (be nice, people), but a casual chat with Dirk Kuyt did.
While sipping an adult beverage at the hotel bar with a couple of mates Friday, it was, to say the least, a little strange to see many of the stars who have lit up the World Cup hanging out in leather chairs within a botched short corner. When Kuyt came up to the bar to place an order (three waters), I moved over to give him room.
As a paid-up member of the Fourth Estate, I should have grilled him on all manner of topics, but it was a night off for both of us and I happily reverted to the "gobsmacked" starstruck fan I'm far too old to be, but make no apology for. The Liverpool star gave me a genial glance, so I asked him how he was doing. We chatted for the next five minutes like we were swapping yarns at McConvilles Pub in Newry on a starry Irish night. Kuyt was beaming. The man was enjoying his World Cup. And so was I.
It got better about 15 minutes later when Nigel de Jong went over to a youngster in a Brazil sweatshirt and engaged him for a couple of minutes, the kid's eyes getting bigger and bigger. The Dutch hard man then headed to the elevators, only to return 10 minutes later with a Dutch national team jersey (from the Uruguay semifinal, no less) and gave it to the boy. I wasn't expecting a Joe Greene Coke commercial to take place right in front of me at the World Cup. But there it was.
But that's the wonder of this event. A psychic octopus becomes an international star, and every now and then, if you are very lucky, you get affirmation of why you love this beautiful game so much.