[Editor’s note: The latest installment in Coach Larry’s series of dispatches from South Africa takes us back to the dramatic USA v Slovenia game of June 18.]
After the easiest trip ever yesterday [June 17], which allowed for a quick 10 minute roulette session (single 0), today our hosts decide to switch it up. We are dropped in downtown Sandton to catch a shuttle, at any of many numerous stops, which will take us to another shuttle. We decide to leave early, as we hope to experience more of the atmosphere around this crucial match. The extra time proves useful, as no police or locals have any knowledge at all about the location of these bus stops. Within 30 minutes, the two of us now have 8 friends, all looking for “the stop for the shuttle to the shuttle to the park”. A couple of Germans, one wearing a Frings kit, wave down a minibus taxi instead. Nine of us pile in, the people already in it get out, and the driver agrees to take us all the way to the stadium.
Located much more in the city, say like Queens, the hills of Johannesburg prevent us from even glimpsing the light stanchions of Ellis Park before being dropped off.
Down a hill, around a corner, and down a blocked off street we walk. There goes the second shuttle we would have been on. We walk by the “California Pub”. Even with previous delays, our planning allows us plenty of time to stop in, grab a beer, and maybe a kebab from the grill running out front. Hey, there’s Frings.
Surprisingly, I recognize nobody else in a place full to overflowing with US fans. “U S A, U S A, U S A” rings out. We notice a large group of Slovenian fans infringing on this impromptu American soil. They join in the chant, which suddenly becomes, “U S A, U S A, USA-but-not-today!”
As one of the few pre-existing stadia, and usually host of rugby, Ellis Park feels very tight. Each section much smaller than its newer brethren with a smaller capacity to match. Many US fans drape themselves head-to-toe in flag apparel, a practice frowned upon by the official flag code. I just wish they had the star field in the upper left of the display where it belongs. Two very prominent Slovenian sections have a good time running up to kick-off. Out the teams walk, and Sam’s Army finds its full voice for the Star Spangled Banner. First half play begins, and the US sits back, conceding possession and its usual early goal. The Americans push harder in the last 15 minutes of the half, and allows a quick counter to make it a two goal deficit. Ellis Park has become a very quiet place.
The roar returns quickly with that early Donovan goal. It builds through the half, as the US shows us everything they did not have in the deplorable first half. Somehow, Bradley grabs the second, evening up the match, and bedlam spreads. Then Altidore
“earns” a free kick, taken by Donovan, and it’s in the net. Now the jumping and hugging really take off, beers flying, and hardly anyone notices the referee not allowing it. The couple of Mexicans to our left look bemused as I shake my head at our fans’ naivete. Thanks to the non-display of replays inside the stadium, we do not discover the level of incompetence required to deny us the win until the next day at breakfast.
On the way out, we catch the proper shuttle to a shuttle, but not before getting off early and finding Johannesburg’s version of the Bronx. After packing and eating, the next day we get one last shuttle into Sandton, and pick up our rental car for our drive to a game lodge. Suddenly realizing we will arrive well after dark, I gladly accept the offer of a GPS system.