Almost every England fan arriving in Bloemfontein has a story to tell about how they got here. For most, the logistical challenges of getting around a country the size of South Africa have brought their own frustrations but have also added to the sense of adventure.
At the last World Cup, in Germany, where high-speed rail travel was included with any match ticket, a swift change of venue merely necessitated getting on a different train. Here, it involves an intimate knowledge of budget air timetables and likely availability, a knack for finding guest houses in out-of-the-way places, a solid internet connection and a degree of ingenuity.
With no cross-country public transport network to speak of, flying or driving is often the only option — particularly when some stadiums, such as Rustenburg and Nelspruit, are literally in the middle of nowhere.
Large numbers of fans are experiencing this World Cup as a package tour, but anecdotal evidence suggests there are even more making up their own itineraries as they go along. When England finished second rather than first in their group, many who had tickets and travel to Rustenburg had to quickly change tack.
In many cases, they extended their trip by a couple of days in order to make Sunday’s match — rather than face the nightmare scenario of being in the air when England and Germany kick off.
Accommodation is hard to come by. Many hotels and guest houses originally increased their prices to ridiculous levels, while the actions of Fifa’s accommodation agency Match also caused a logjam and kept prices artificially high.
A group of fans who follow England home and away and watched the Ghana v US match in a Bloemfontein bar on Friday night were staying in university dormitories, while others have sought out guest houses and B&Bs that didn’t sign up with Match and do not have an internet presence.
Things don’t always run smoothly, but fans have unanimously praised the eagerness of their hosts to help. “I asked some of the guys in the guest house where I was staying the day before the opening ceremony how they felt and they said it was like Christmas Eve. That summed it up for me,” said Paul Weston, from Bedford.
Everton fans David Thomson and Yasemin Isiyel are trying to combine seeing their club players in action for their various countries with following England. Their odyssey has so far taken them to Durban, Sun City, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, with a 13-hour bus ride from Durban to Bloemfontein.
On Monday, they will tick off their aim of seeing every Everton player in the tournament when they see Holland’s John Heitinger take on their new Slovakian goalkeeper Jan Mucha in Durban.
“This hopefully will be followed by a Garden Route trip across to Cape Town for the quarters and a flight back across to Durban for the semis, before heading back to Cape Town for birthday celebrations,” Thomson said. “Then over to Port Elizabeth again for the third-place play-off game, before finally heading up to Jo’burg, where the trip started at Soccer City — with England winning the World Cup of course.”
A group of 100 fans are travelling in a pair of coaches to places off the beaten track. Others have based themselves largely in Cape Town, hitting the highway to take in England matches on extended road trips.
There is undoubtedly a contingent at this World Cup who are fans of South Africa as a tourist destination as much as a sporting one — they have been on cricket tours here, followed the British Lions and now see the opportunity to combine another major event with dinner in Camps Bay, scuba diving and safari. But many more are simply football fans on the trip of a lifetime. So far most seem to believe it has more than delivered.
Again and again, fans rave about the experience they have had here and the warmth of the welcome. The only recurring grumbles are about Fifa’s ticketing policy, transport difficulties and the extent to which the media hyped up security threats. Many say they have friends who stayed at home as a result, and who now desperately wish they were here. – guardian.co.uk