Barely seven weeks before the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, England's training base remains a construction site, with scores of workers deploying cranes and heavy earth-moving equipment in a race to complete vital facilities.
The Independent on Sunday gained access to the Bafokeng Sports Campus in South Africa's North West Province, where the England team will be based during the tournament. The complex includes a luxury hotel, eight full-sized football pitches, a clubhouse with dressing rooms and a hi-tech gym with a spa and medical treatment rooms, but during a visit on Friday, large areas of the site were off-limits because of construction activity.
The security post at the entrance to the sports campus, a short drive from the stadium where the England team will open their World Cup campaign against the USA on 12 June, is still being built. Flatbed trucks loaded with squares of turf were waiting nearby for landscaping work to start around the entrance.
Inside, a crane was lifting timber sections of the clubhouse roof into place, while workers swarmed around the shell of the gym and physiotherapy building. Surrounded by piles of construction materials, it appeared farthest from completion. While the training pitches have all been grassed, work was going on to equip them with lighting and viewing stands. Several pitches had standards with no lights on top, and a crane was being used to plant more into the ground.
A flag-lined driveway leads to the 74-room Royal Marang Hotel, where the England flag flies side by side with that of South Africa. The hotel, which has been block-booked by the England camp for the duration of the World Cup, has been accepting guests since February, but is still undergoing finishing touches. During Friday's visit we were shown the luxurious rooms that will be used by the England players, but four top-priced suites are not yet complete.
An official on site insisted that the complex would be ready in time for England's arrival in the first week of June, and said it had not been considered necessary to bring in more workers or equipment. English FA officials had been satisfied with progress when they visited last month, he said, although earlier this year there were reports that the England manager, Fabio Capello, was
concerned that late completion of the work could affect the quality of the training facilities.
Other local sources agreed that the race to finish the Bafokeng Sports Campus in time will probably be won. But the margin for error is thin, and England's carefully laid plans for the World Cup could suffer a setback if there are any unforeseen problems. South Africa has already admitted that some infrastructure projects, mainly on the roads, will not be ready in time. Even between the England base and the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, where the team will play its first match, a stretch of dual carriageway turns abruptly into a dirt track and back again. Work to widen the road to the Sun City resort, about half an hour away, where many England fans will be staying, is unlikely to be completed before June.
It was always something of a gamble for England to choose a base in an out-of-the-way part of South Africa, especially when the facilities had yet to be built. But after the media circus that accompanied the England team in Germany four years ago, especially the antics of the players' wives and girlfriends in Baden Baden, Capello was said to favour the most remote location possible. Although Rustenburg is described as the World Cup venue, the stadium is a 20-minute drive out of town in Phokeng, the headquarters of the Bafokeng tribe, which was helped by Lutheran missionaries to hold on to its ancestral lands during the apartheid era. Thanks to the later discovery of platinum in the area, the tribe is now immensely wealthy.
The Royal Bafokeng, described as the only community-owned stadium in the World Cup tournament, dominates modest Phokeng.
Fifa has insisted that the town's main shopping centre, next door to the stadium, should close on match days, and no compensation for the 70 shops has yet been agreed. "It's a big loss for them," said a manager of the centre. "People are not very happy about it."
The Bafokeng authorities hope the sports campus will be sought after by international teams as a high-altitude training facility. For England and Capello, one of its main virtues is that it is surrounded by virgin bush, with the flames of a platinum refinery visible in the distance at night. It will be easy to keep the media and other unwelcome outsiders at bay during the World Cup.
The England party plans to return to the Bafokeng complex after the team's later group matches in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. If England top the group, their first knock-out match would also be in Rustenburg. Many of the later matches will be held in cities that can be reached by road from Rustenburg, including Johannesburg, where the World Cup final will be played on 11 July.
A lesson in global poverty for football fans
Millions of schoolchildren will be sitting down to the same lesson this week as part of a huge campaign to use the World Cup to improve educational opportunities in some of the poorest nations. The "World's Biggest Lesson", which will take place in more than 100 countries, will concentrate on the provision of quality public education as a human right and highlight the financial problems preventing many children getting even basic schooling.
Organisers of the "1GOAL: Lesson for All" event claim it will be the "Make Poverty History" of 2010. The World Cup, taking place in Africa for the first time this year, will alert billions of football fans to the progress, challenges and constraints linked to providing education in Africa. Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, has pledged that the 2010 World Cup will leave a lasting legacy of education in Africa and the rest of the world.
It promises to be the biggest campaign around a sporting event the world has ever seen – and it has been backed by football stars. The first key message is that this year at least £8bn is needed in both aid and increased commitments from poor countries from their budgets to pay for new teachers and schools.
Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre, who has used his own money to finance school projects in Africa and Asia, is one of the footballers supporting the campaign. He said: "I am adding my support to 1GOAL as I believe that education is the most efficient way to combat exclusion, deprivation and poverty.
"My own charity, Schools for Hope, builds, maintains and staffs schools in impoverished parts of the world. The programme's aim is to take children off the streets and to teach them to read, write and learn a profession. It uses sport as a medium to achieve this goal."
Brian BradyReuse content