Fabio Capello admitted yesterday that England's World Cup finals preparations have been hit by the discovery that the training pitches at the squad's prospective base in the north-western region of South Africa are not up to standard.
Capello has delayed the Football Association officially booking England's base, outside the city of Rustenburg, because of fears over the playing surfaces of the six training pitches at the Royal Bafokeng sports campus. On the eve of this afternoon's final draw for the World Cup finals, Capello said that he may wait until February before making up his mind.
The exacting Italian coach visited the Royal Bafokeng campus for the second time yesterday to look at the state of the pitches before travelling to Cape Town for today's draw. Capello said: "The facilities are really, really good but the problem is the pitches. The pitches are not great. We are working a lot. I think we will find the solution.
"It's the training ground, the standard of the pitch that is most important. The pitches are very important with the training – to have the same [kind of] pitches we'll play matches on [during the World Cup]. We have another option [for a different training complex]. But we have time. We found a solution for Wembley's pitch, we will find a solution for this."
The FA is still hopeful that the problem will be resolved in time to give it the peace of mind that the complex in Phokeng will meet Capello's standards, but it is not ruling out a last-minute change of venue. The FA's fear is that the pitches, which the FA believes are seeded with jungle grass, are growing in a patchy fashion and will not withstand up to three weeks of the players training on them everyday.
Small details such as these are fundamental to Capello's approach: he even has the grass at Wembley cut to a particular length. The FA has never before left it so late to book a training venue for a tournament: it had decided upon the Bühlerhohe Schlosshotel outside Baden-Baden, and the Mittelberg training ground in Bühlertal, well in advance of the last World Cup finals.
Last night a spokesman for the Royal Bafokeng sports campus said that they were confident that the pitches were in "pristine" condition. Martin Bekker said that the six pitches at Royal Bafokeng had been laid and maintained by the same company responsible for the Rustenburg stadium pitch, which was voted the best playing surface at the Confederations Cup last summer.
"The pitches are looking pristine," Bekker said. "We know all the hard work that has gone in there and everyone has trust in the guys who did the stadium pitch. If anything the biggest pressure on us is to make sure the [finishing touches to the] hotel [building] is on schedule. The pitches have not been a big fear for us."
Bekker said that the training pitches are built on a base of silica and river sand, overlaid with soil and finally a special mesh that allows the grassroots to grip and develop. He said that the Bafokeng campus uses two different types of grass – rye and kikuyu – in order to make sure that if one dries, the other will sustain the quality of the pitch.
"Of all the factors that will persuade people to come here, the quality of the pitch is one that we can control," Bekker said. "We have been lucky with the altitude and the fact that we are close to a lot of the World Cup venues in Rustenburg, Pretoria and Johannesburg. The quality of the pitches we can certainly control and it is very straightforward, we have the same guys who got the thumbs up for the best pitch at the Confederations Cup."
The campus has been built by the Royal Bafokeng tribe, who will use it as a base for their rugby franchise, the Platinum Leopards and South Africa Premier League football club Platinum Stars. As well as a gym and medical department, the complex will also have a dental surgery for the England players' use.
The draw: How it works
The draw ceremony starts at 5pm and is televised on BBC2 (17.15 - 18.35) and Sky Sports News. Eight groups (A-H) of four will be drawn, with each group first allocated a seed (taking up position one). Teams from Pots Two, Three and Four will then be drawn into groups and positions.
Brazil and Argentina can not be drawn with any of the remaining South American nations, while hosts South Africa will not be paired with any other African nation. There will be no more than two European sides in any group.
Pot One (seeds)
South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England.
Pot Two (Asia, Oceania, North and Central America)
Japan (danger rating: 2), South Korea (2), North Korea (1), Australia (3), New Zealand (1), United States (3), Mexico (3), Honduras (2).
Pot Three (Africa and South America)
Ivory Coast (4), Ghana (4), Cameroon (3), Nigeria (3), Algeria (2), Paraguay (3), Chile (3), Uruguay (2).
Pot Four (Europe)
France (3), Portugal (4), Slovenia (2), Switzerland (2), Greece (2), Serbia (3), Denmark (3), Slovakia (2).