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Posted by John Brewin
JOHANNESBURG -- Soccer City, eight hours before kickoff. Like so often during this full calendar month in South Africa, reports of imminent trouble resulted in a cautious approach and an eventual wondering of what the fuss was all about.
We got here early, perhaps too early. But we'll take that. Better that than the frustration of being so near to an occasion yet not close enough for comfort. You can never be too careful.
Local intelligence informed of road blocks from the early hours, resulting from the impending presence of world leaders, 17 heads of state in total and countless members of the great and the good of entertainment and sport. And Paris Hilton. That Durban became spaghetti junction on Wednesday has meant that those ticketed to be at the world's biggest sporting occasion, bar none, are more than happy to play a waiting game. Like before the opening match, the presence or otherwise of Nelson Mandela is in question, though even he cannot overshadow this day.
The street vendors on the highway were staging one last big push for sales, some even using garish body paint as a marketing tool. A vuvuzela's market value is expected to collapse come Monday, the weapons of ear destruction having been banned from Soccer City for its next occasion when the Springboks rugby team plays New Zealand next month. Up at the stadium, soldiers were idling, probably waiting to begin building the roadblocks while a group of Dutch fans had already begun the process of getting slowly sozzled on a brand of beer that definitely did not look like FIFA's endorsed American brand.
If the nerves and the expectation have set in with those who are attending, then what of those set to play in the game of their lives? The Dutch team held an open training session Saturday evening, and relaxation and enjoyment seemed to be Bert van Maarwijk's key tenet in sending out his team for public scrutiny. There was much jocularity in heading-and-crossing practice with Dirk Kuyt and Mark van Bommel clearly the squad jokers, with many a mockery handed out to those missing the target. Wesley Sneijder, though, bore the appearance of a man in both focus and form, his shots on goal driven with precise power and his shaved head nodding in many a cross.
The hourlong session ended with further evidence that this is a squad comfortable in its own company. Piggyback rides were taken down the tunnel and there was even the odd comedy kick up the rear. If revealing that they were not afraid of the Spanish and were ready for the biggest days of their lives was the aim, then van Maarwijk's aims were met. The following news conference was more businesslike, though it is in the Dutch national identity to be forthright and straight-talking. "We just have to be ourselves," the coach said in summary.
Their Spanish opponents supplied fewer smiles in arriving at the ground an hour later. Only the first 15 minutes of their training session was publicly viewable and it was merely a session of ball skills being honed and shuttle runs being made. In making their way to the stadium, the likes of Xavi wore the requisite footballer apparatus of headphones and the thousand-yard stare. Focus on the job in hand is the latter-day Spanish way, to match the concentration levels that have brought them to this unknown territory.
Yet their news conference, first featuring David Villa, Iker Casillas and Xavi and then their coach, was no grim-faced wall of cliché. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves. So much so that Vicente Del Bosque even smiled. And he agreed with the Dutch coach.
"I don't believe Holland will change their approach simply because they are playing Spain," he said. "They have a very well-defined style, as do we. I certainly don't think they will change the script."
The script, of course, is not yet written, and is, at time of writing, hours away from its first act. It's worth the wait.