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As far as raw passion for soccer is concerned, South Africa was definitely a good choice to stage the upcoming June 11 – July 11 World Cup. From the moment I arrived in this city of staggering contrasts, the excitement about the month-long extravaganza was everywhere to be seen: in shops, restaurants, public areas and even on the vast four-lane motorways, with cars donning flags of the countries competing in the 32-team tournament.
And the vuvuzela of course – a trumpet-like South African instrument which appears to be lighter than a sheet of paper but produces the kind of a deafening roar an entire Serbian brass band would be proud of. Along with flags, team shirts, caps and scarves, it is one of many fan items available literally on every corner in Johannesburg.
The South Africans have gone out of their way to be good hosts. Wherever you go for a meal or a night out in the city’s posh Sandton district, you will be greeted with a broad smile and hospitality second to none. You will also be shocked at prices more akin to Europe than Africa, and this was by no means the only stereotype that went out the window on my first day in the city.
After all the security briefings designed to warn tourists, travelling fans and the media of the dreadful dangers Johannesburg’s impoverished townships hold for unsuspecting visitors finding themselves in uncharted territory, my first encounter with a potentially undesirable situation came when I least expected it.
The Butcher’s Shop is a fancy restaurant in Nelson Mandela square, the heart of Sandton, packed with stylish bars and night clubs encircling a giant statue of the South African leader. After a hefty meal consisting of the biggest steak I’ve ever had in my life and superb local side-dishes helped down with some fine red wine, I went outside for a cigarette and in less than a minute I was confronted by a scruffy-looking bloke who asked me for money. “I have just got out of prison after five years and I need money to get home,” he said, although it was more likely he was just looking for a beer and using an all too familiar line.
I wasn’t surprised that he spotted a stranger instantly, although had he really been behind bars for half a decade he might have struggled a little more, but I was utterly shocked to learn that South Africa is apparently no stranger to white beggars and petty criminals – something I learned after a crash course in local social affairs from one of my colleagues after I’d told him what happened.
But far more alarming is the staggering violent crime rate in Johannesburg’s townships and indeed even the city centre itself, as some fellow Serbs I met in my first two hours in the city will testify.
Meeting Serbian taxi drivers on arrival at the Town Lodge Hotel, my home for the next four weeks, was another shock by the way. Branislav has been shot three times in Johannesburg during his 18-year stay despite all the precautions he has vigilantly taken down the years. “Most of the crime here is completely opportunist and that’s why it’s difficult to do anything about it,” he said. “It can happen anywhere and at any time of day or night if you are spotted as any easy target carrying a mobile phone, a camera or other valuable belongings.”
But back to football: South Africa gave their hopes of advancing to the knockout stage of the tournament a big boost after beating Denmark 1-0 in their final pre-tournament warm-up, while Nigeria’s 3-1 win over North Korea in a small non-World Cup stadium was marred by serious crowd trouble. There are half a million Nigerians living in Johannesburg and the ramshackle ground with a capacity of just 10,000 was never going to be adequate for even a tiny fraction of the people who turned up. More than a dozen people, including a policeman, were injured after ticketless fans stormed the gate and caused a stampede in one of the stands.
But the incident will soon be forgotten as teams keep arriving at the impressive Oliver Tambo airport for the first World Cup on African soil, greeted by thousands of adoring local fans who cannot wait for the opening match between the host nation and Mexico on June 11.
To be honest, neither can I and something tells me the red soil of Africa could produce one of the greatest World Cups ever, if the pre-tournament buzz and the enthusiasm of local organisers is anything to go by. And last but not least, I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the enchanting atmosphere of Soccer City, the home of the International Broadcasting Centre where all the media offices are situated.
The IBC’s simple yet warming outdoor cantina comes as a perfect supplement to the magnificent stadium down the road, which looks a bit like an alien spaceship that has just landed in sunny South Africa.
Donors spent hundreds of thousands of euro building a new museum in Gjirokastra - but the results were questionable and it ultimately closed over an ideological dispute.