Slovaks, Kids and Evil Bird-Raising Hoteliers

There’s a by-the-numbers journalistic trick–one I that I have, sadly, employed on more than one occasion–in which, after observing their subject for a time, said journalist writes a piece in which he or she “discovers” some great truth about it. Here’s a secret: 99.9% of the time, the lesson hasn’t actually been learned, because it was figured out (or invented) ahead of time. Shocking, I know.

Which brings us to Paraguay-Slovakia. Shortly after the World Cup draw back in December, Mravic and I got to talking about possible stories. One we came up with was picking the worst game and just covering it straight. Now, when we said, “worst game,” we weren’t necessarily looking for he two least talented teams. Rather, we were looking for the least glamorous game, the one featuring the most random matchup we could find. It didn’t take long before we had our winner: Paraguay against Slovakia, on June 20 in Bloemfontein.

This game had absolutely nothing to recommend it, unless you are Paraguayan, Slovakian or, prefereably, both. There’s no geographic intrigue, like Portugal-Spain, or any sort of lingering colonial ill will, like U.S.-England. No lovable underdogs, no superstar players. Just the national teams of two countries most people in the States couldn’t find on a map.

This is how obscure they are: The original idea was to do some reporting in New York, go to a Paraguayan restaurant and get the folks there to talk smack about Slovakia, then head to a Slovak joint and do the same. But there are a grand total of zero Paraguayan and Slovak restaurants in the City. Mind you, there are Benin-themed joints, and I think there’s a section of Queens known as Little Andorra. But nothing for Paraguay or Slovakia.

So then I figured I’d track down a famous Slovak or two. Alas, the only ones I could find were Ivan Reitman, who didn’t want to be interviewed, and boxer Kelly Pavlik, who was nice enough to talk to me about growing up in a Slovak neighborhood of Youngstown. That was it. As for finding a famous Paraguayan-American, I couldn’t. Seriously. Google “famous Paraguayan-American.” You get zero hits. Zero.

To make things even more bizarre, Bloemfontein was the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkein, so the nicest hotel in town is a B&B called The Hobbit Hotel. Staying there was a no-brainer.

So I figured what would happen would be this: I’d set up how absurd this was, crack a few orc jokes and then close with a lesson learned, specifically that there’s no such thing as a bad World Cup game, because even the worst one is pretty great.

I was a little unprepared for what happened. It turned out that the worst game was, in fact, pretty great. I actually learned the lesson I was prepared to have pretended to learn. It all started outside the stadium, maybe an hour before kickoff. I went out in search of fans for either team, hoping to find out what made them tick–and maybe get them to talk a little smack about each other. (Side note: Back in Cape Town, we started chatting up Paraguay fans after they played Italy, trying to get them to start a war of words with Slovakia. It almost worked: Paraguayans were convinced that Slovaks ate nothing but potatoes and that the president of Paraguay, a former bishop who has fathered children by at least three women, could beat up Slovakia’s president. But the Slovaks refused to stoop to that level. When I asked a Slovak if his president could beat up Paraguay’s president, the response I got was, “Who did you say you work for?”) Instead, the Paraguayans and Slovaks were getting along famously, each singing their own songs but also posing for pictures with each other.

When things really got cool, though, was when a group of local fifth graders showed up. They had been given tickets by adidas as part of some sponsorship arrangement (suffice to say, the game was nowhere near sold out). Being from Bloemfontein, they didn’t care who won, so the fans took it upon themselves to try to win the kids over to their side. There was no reason for them to do it, other than it was fun for everyone involved. The Slovaks had the Paraguayans outnumbered, and they were making a hell of a racket by chanting “My smy tu doma! My smy tu doma!” I had no idea what it meant, so I asked a kid with a Slovakia scarf. His name was Ivan, who was busy teaching it to a group of girls. He told me it meant, “Here we are home,” and that Slovaks always chanted it when they played away from home.

Ivan (far right), and his dad, also Ivan

So I kicked around a little while longer, and before I went back inside, I saw Ivan again. This time he was scarf-less. I looked around a little more and saw one of the girls, whose name was Nthabeleng, wearing it. He told me he gave it to her “because she asked.” “I can get that stuff any time in Slovakia,” he said. Nthabeleng, meanwhile, had suddenly been transformed into the most popular kid in the class because she had the scarf. One thing I’ve found is that most people who aren’t used to being photographed love it when you take their picture. But Nthabeleng wasn’t just smiling because I wanted to take her picture; she was beaming because she was so proud of the scarf.

Nthabeleng (left) and mates

Nthabeleng

After the game, which Paraguay won handily, I stopped off at a restaurant to watch the late game. There were a bunch of non-Paraguayans in there wearing Paraguay jerseys. Finally, I asked a dude in a Paraguay jersey and a Slovakia hat what was going on. The guy, named Tibor, told me that he was a Slovak and that after the game, he and a bunch of his friends swapped jerseys with some Paraguayans, just like the players do. It was pretty cool. And then as I was leaving, Tibor called me back and gave me his hat.

So I went back to the Hobbit Hotel and wrote something for the magazine about the lesson I learned. Hackneyed, yes. But for once there actually was a lesson in there.

Sweet, I know.

Then I went back to Bloemfontein a week later for Germany-England. The first trip reassured me that remarkable little things happen every day. The second one had me roiled into a homicidal rage, one that is creeping back into my body as I think of it a full week later. Long story short: Hobbit Hotel full, so I book a room at a B&B north of town. The woman on the phone, an exotic bird raiser named Mardie, tells me that she’s not going to require a deposit, but please don’t bail, because that would leave her in a lurch. Then the Hobbit Hotel calls: They’ve got a room. I say no. The Hobbit Hotel is a 10-minute walk from the stadium; the Amazon Spa is a 45-minute drive. But I gave Mardie, the exotic bird raiser/hotelier, my word. I could have bailed at no cost to me. But no. I keep my word. I schlep up there through blazing backwoods (seriously, why is so much of South Africa on fire?) and pull in at 9:00. There is, per the norm, an electrified fence around the place, so I call Mardie to tell her I’m there. She doesn’t answer. Some guy does. He tells me I need to wait. Fifteen minutes later he comes outside. At the time I wasn’t sure how involved he was in the emerging conspiracy developing against me. He portrayed himself as the messenger, nothing more, and I was prepared to take him at his word. In hindsight, he knew what was going on (I think he was Mardie’s husband), which is why at the time I wouldn’t have said anything bad about him but now I have no qualms pointing out that he was a troglodyte with a syphillitic nose and a terrible haircut. He told me the room Mardie booked was in Bloemfontein, which meant turning around and driving back (I had work to do, mind you). Again, can’t really call him out on his troglodytic ways, because A) I wasn’t convinced–yet–that he was actively screwing me, and B) he was the only one who could give me directions. So I drive back and, of course, get lost. While cruising the backstreets of Bloemfontein, I somehow run over what appeared to be a giant tumbleweed, only it was made out of piano wire. It had lodged itself in the wheel well of one of the front tires, and it was dragging all over the place and I was afraid it was going to wrap around the axle and really screw things up, so I had to get out of the car (not recommended on a deserted road at 10:00 in the middle of nowhere) and try to pull it off. Question: Ever grabbed a handful of piano wire and pulled? No. Well, it hurts. Fifteen minutes later, piano wire is gone, as are three of my fingertips. I finally locate this B&B I’m supposed to be staying at. As I look to park my car, the woman who runs it, whose name escapes me, tells me to sit tight because someone is coming to pick me up. “Huh?” I say. Turns out that not only had Mardie given away my room, but she then sent me to a place that was also full. The lady who runsthe second place tells me the best she can do is get me a bed in someone’s house, though I’ll have to share the room with some Australians. Long story short (too late, I know), I end up driving the four hours back to Jo-burg (had I known it was a four-hour drive I would have driven home from the get-go), but only after making sure everyone in Bloemfontein had been given the same message to relay to Mardie should they see her: “#^$% you, lady.” (Seriously, if you have the time and the inclination, call Mardie at the number on the website and taunt her birds. And her husband. Better yet, book rooms and don’t show.)

So there you have it. Bloemfontein: Humanity at its best. And worst.

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To the Rescue (cont.)

The drive down the Cape and back proved to be one of the highlights of our three weeks in South Africa. The landscape and scenery were dramatic. Bechtel compares it to Cloud City only because, despite two visits to Bloemfontein, he has not read Lord of the Rings.

The Misty Mountains.

After Cape Point we made the short drive to the actual Cape of Good Hope, which contrary to popular wisdom is not the southernmost tip of Africa nor the place where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, that honor being reserved for Cape Agulhas, about 100 miles further east. But this locale is much more scenic and closer to Cape Town and so attracts a crowd. In fact, to have your picture snapped at the marker requires you to wait in line, or occasionally jump the line and be photographed with a Chinese man.

The Boy and his new friend.

We’d seen an ostrich farm on the way to the Cape and took many snaps, which turned out to have been premature when we encountered live ostriches, presumably not soon to be made into nasty sausage, on the road back.

After the penguins at Boulders Beach we passed through Simon’s Town and its famed naval base, which dates to the days of Britain’s takeover of the Cape in 1806 and figures prominently in The Mauritius Command, the fourth book of the Aubrey/Maturin series. Despite all that, shockingly, I could not convince my traveling companions to stop even for a moment. You may be interested to know that in those days Simon’s Town was the more significant settlement; Cape Town was a dusty backwater. Or you may not. The Boy did snap a shot of what looked to be a guided missile frigate as we drove by.
Ahh, friggit. (chuckle).
We did Chapman’s Peak drive on the way back and were rewarded with the views that had eluded us in the morning.

Chapman's Peak.

And we even got one decent picture of the Boy and his old man, the only one during three weeks worth of photography.

Happy travelers.

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To the Rescue

You’ll recall that Peter King had to borrow my laptop for a few days early on in the tournament, after his, a Mac as well, blew up, and that halted any forward blogging momentum I’d generated. It was pretty much no go from there on in, given travel and work schedule and connectivity issues and general laziness. Now, though, safely ensconced on the couch in Manhattan with reliable high-speed WiFi and dramatically improved upload times, I pick up where Bechtel and his blown-up Powerbook have left off. For instance, here are some penguin pictures. The spot is called Boulders Beach, on the eastern side of the Cape.

A penguin.

A penguin (top view).

A penguin (young and furry).

Two penguins on some rocks.

Penguin warning.

The penguins roost in little dugouts in the bushes just up from the beach, and also in some plastic tubs the park service has built into the sand. The colony is quite large, though most of it is out of sight in the undergrowth. The place smelled a bit of ammoniac bird droppings. It was also populated with dassies—their official name is the rock hyrax—who, as noted, enjoy perching atop things.

Dassies, perched on changing hut.

They are cute, no doubt about it.

We are not suicidal in the least.

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Animals (Some Suicidal) and Vistas (Some Not Visible)

Shortly before Mravic—who has pretty much gone off the grid at this point, leaving Randmarks entirely to me—and [The Boy...] arrived in Cape Town, I hit Table Mountain, which is a big mesa kind of thing with excellent views of the city. (That round thing is Green Point Stadium. And yes, it is always that hazy.)

Cape Town

The unexpected highlight of the trip, aside from seeing Mick McCarthy in the parking lot, was the presence of these little furry things called dassies, which is Dutch for badgers. Though I’m not certain they’re actually badgers. (Typical of the Dutch not to know these things.) I ask you, do these look like the same creature?

Alleged badgers

Actual badger

Anyways, these dassies just hang out on the rocks close to a mile above terra firma. Looking at them you can’t help but think that they’re harboring thoughts of offing themselves.

Don't do it, Bucky!

After Mravic and [The Boy...] arrived, we took a drive out to the Cape of Good Hope and its neighbor, Cape Point. (Apparently that’s why they call it Cape Town. Who knew?) The drive out was ominous. We stopped at something called Chapman’s Peak, which supposedly offered incredible views. Alas, there were fog issues, so this is what we saw:

Some view

The peaks at the Capes themselves, though, were high enough that we were actually above the fog—but only just. It was kind of like being in Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back….

Head in the clouds (I write photo captions for a living. This is the best I can do.)

A long way from home

On the way back to Cape Town, we stopped to see some penguins. It’s pretty amazing—Cape Town is the same latitude as Los Angeles (different hemisphere, obviously), so the winters here are pretty mild. (Remember, it’s the equivalent of Dec. 30 down here.) But it’s still close enough to Antarctica that penguins are indigenous to the area. Had I been paying closer attention at the penguin place, I could tell you more about where they live. But I had bought some gelato and the guy told me I couldn’t take it in where the penguins were, so I had to eat it fast, but not so fast as to give myself an ice cream headache. It was a delicate operation that required a lot of concentration, so I was in no position to focus on the informational signs on the wall. At this point, I’d normally post a picture of a penguin, but my laptop just died. (Astute readers of the 2006 Bechtel/Mravic World Cup blog will remember that the same thing happened in Germany. I blame Sepp Blatter.) So any picture I haven’t uploaded already isn’t going to make it in here (though I was clever enough to upload some stuff for one more post—then the blog is going to look like an 18th century newspaper). Also, chances are you know what a penguin looks like. Seen one, seen them all. (To wit, one of my favorite jokes: Penguin walks into a bar and says to the bartender, “Has my brother been in here?” And the bartender says, “I don’t know. What does he look like?”)

Anyways, after the penguins (there was a sign in the parking lot asking us to look under our vehicle for penguins before driving out) we stopped at Chapman’s Peak, where the fog had lifted and the sunset was incredible. This is where a picture would help, as it would not only look like something on an inspirational poster they sell in those kiosks at the mall, but it would also be a nice counter to the foggy picture above, allowing for a little before-and-after action. But you, gentle reader, can’t really complain. You get what you pay for.

Unless it’s a Mac PowerBook Pro. Then you don’t. You get a piece of crap that fries its hard drive every time you attend a major sporting event.

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By the Numbers

Stats from the first fortnight in Africa (Bechtel only)….

Games seen in person: 6

Goals seen: 9

Men in elephant costumes embraced by: 2

Men in elephant costumes gored by: 1

Miles flown: 12,214

Total miles in car: 1,745

Miles driven: 357

Times I’ve driven on the left side of the road before this trip: 0

Times I’ve turned into oncoming traffic: 1

My nemesis.

People I had to ask how to put the rental in reverse: 3*

Percentage of cameras that have died: 50

Approximate number of kudu seen: 10

Approximate pounds of kudu eaten : 11 (biltong)

Jerseys purchased as impulse buys: 1 (Ivory Coast)

Jerseys purchased after convincing myself it was the prudent thing to do: 1 (Slovenia)

Pushy dealers who’ve offered me their cell number in case I ever need to “get right”: 1**

Meals eaten at Nando’s: 2

Meals I plan to eat at Nando’s in the next three weeks: 25

Shoes ruined: 1***

Nights spent in Hobbit-themed hotel: 2

Meals eaten at Hobbit-themed hotel: 1

Entrees that could be identified at Hobbit-themed hotel: 0****

Middle Earth jokes made: >1,000

Lovely Slovakians named Ivan chatted with: 2

Hats received as gifts from men named Tibor: 1

Longest stretch without shaving: 5 days*****

Posts with the word “horseshit”: 2

Times my backpack was searched as I exited a stadium: 1******

Photos taken of sunsets: >1,000

Go. Go. Go.

*In my defense: The last time I drove a stick was in a Formula Ford race car at the Skip Barber driving school. That was like 14 years ago. And mind you, those cars were incredibly tricky. They had six gears, and to shift through a sharp turn at 120 miles an hour, you had to break with your right foot, hit the clutch with your left and then before you could drop it from, say, sixth to second, you had to roll your right foot over onto the gas—while still braking—to rev the engine, because if you were to throw it into second with the engine turning that fast, you’d be picking spring valves out of your forehead. Point being: Look, I know there’s nothing worse than a guy who can’t drive a stick. And I can drive a stick. I can drive the hell out of a stick. But not for ages. And apparently in the last 15 years, someone decided to rig it so you have to push the stick down to get it in reverse. Someone could have thought to tell me.

**Apparently that’s why they’re called pushers.

**It was only one shoe, not the pair, and Mravic tells me that Gladys, the cook/housekeeper at the SI House™, has somehow fixed it. I’ll find out when he and [The Boy…] arrive in Cape Town.

***There was no menu. The server wasn’t sure, other than “some sort of red meat.” It had a bone in it. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t tasty. But it could have been orc meat for all I know.

****Too many grey spots in the beard to keep it.

*****I thought it was strange, so I asked why they would be searching bags on the way out of the entrance. The woman said, “Some guy stole a flat screen.” Makes sense. Though I’ve always felt that if you can wedge a flat-screen TV into a backpack, you should be allowed to keep it.

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Soccerball!

So there have been complaints from a large percentage of the readership (that is, two of you) that there’s not enough soccer on the blog. While I realize it sets a dangerous precedent to allow the readers to dictate the content, I also realize that a writer’s blatant disrespect for the audience is no way for a blog to thrive. Also, the blog is ostensibly about soccer. So here are some thoughts:

1. In my pre-World Cup SI.com picks, I had the U.S. and Slovenia coming out of Group C. I think I might have been the only person in the world to make that pick. If it hits, you’ll never hear the end of it.

2. Here’s your dark horse: Paraguay.

3. Algeria isn’t going to put two solid games together back-to-back. They’ll have a meltdown at some point against the U.S.

4. The ball is a big problem. It’s been written plenty how it’s too light, which makes it fly farther and flutter (it’s like a balloon). But it also has a tendency to skip when it bounces, which makes everything from playing long balls to controlling passes trickier. (I think the skip—or at least the fear of a skip—is what caused Ghana’s keeper, Richard Kingson, to spill the shot that led to Australia’s goal. He looked like he had no idea what the ball was going to do.) I think a big part of the reason that scoring was down early is that it’s taken a lot of getting to used to a ball that one U.S. player described to me before the tournament as being “horseshit.” (There’s that word again.)

5. Spain’s loss to Switzerland means nothing.

6. France. Quitters. Shocking. Ever read that Onion “Our Dumb Century” about France unveiling the Arc de Capitulation? It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.

7. Seriously, good of them to back a guy who called his coach a “dirty son of a whore” by refusing to practice when he got sent home. Way to pick your battles, guys.

8. Sven-Goran Eriksson and Cote d’Ivoire never seemed like a good fit.

9. And England: What the hell was John Terry thinking? And what makes the players think that going to a 4-5-1 is going to fix things? I like Slovenia to scratch out a draw (see No. 1).

10. Best goal: Enrique Vela’s for Paraguay against Slovakia. Great pass from Lucas Barrios, great finish with the outside of his foot while getting tackled. Best individual effort: probably Siphiwe Tshabalala’s in the opener for South Africa. (Second straight tournament in which the first goal was an absolute cracker from the left wing, after Philip Lahm’s awesome strike against Costa Rica in ’06.)

11. Vuvuzelas? I’m indifferent.

12. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if the U.S. wins Group C, they’ll probably end up playing Serbia (much as I love them, I can’t see Ghana beating Germany, so the Germans should win Group D, with Serbia second) in the round of 16. If form holds, the winner of that game would get the winner of Group A in the quarters—and that’s the winner of tomorrow’s Uruguay-Mexico game. Uruguay has the lead in the group right now on goal difference, so Mexico has the incentive to play for the win, even though a draw sees them both through. How interesting would a U.S.-Mexico quarterfinal be?

13. Last eight: Mexico, Serbia, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Paraguay, Spain (man, is the bottom of the bracket harder than the top)

14: Last four: Mexico (seriously, look at the draw—their path to the final four is basically: beat Uruguay, beat South Korea, beat Serbia/the U.S.), Brazil, Argentina, Spain

15. Final: Spain over Brazil.

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Escape from Johannesburg

Yesterday we blew out of Joburg finally for the long drive out toward Nelspruit, where we’ll see New Zealand play Italy. We rolled  along a nice superhighway across the highveld with a perpetual haze in the air. Everything in South Africa is on fire all the time. If it’s not the brush grass along the highway, it’s massive (massive) and sinister-looking power plants that loom on the horizon or suddenly pop up in a beautiful canyon. About three hours out the countryside turned to rolling hills and then dramatic picture-worthy Africa. The passenger took the pictures.

On the road again.

Note the left-hand side of the road. I’ve gotten the hang of it pretty well except for the occasional brain cramp coming out of a driveway. The only real danger was when we turned back to go to the Garden Cafe and I pulled directly into on-coming traffic headed to Rustenburg, nearly wiping out a large SI contingent. Who would have taken over Monday Morning Quarterback?

The hotel is about an hour north of Nelspruit just outside Kruger National Park. In fact, from the hotel deck you can look right into the park. This was our first view:

Checking off one of the Big Five.

The Boy has been fighting off a sore throat and headache from dryness and altitude, so we skipped Argentina-South Korea and the goal explosion there. We were up for the BBQ (braai, they call it) on Thursday night at SI House, with a few special guests. One of them, a former US national teamer and MLS GM turned broadcaster, spilled wine all over the white couch. “Poor marking,” Marcotti quipped. Somehow I ended up as grillmaster, and must complement myself for having succesfully done a massive beef tenderloin, lamb shoulder and chops, boerewors (sausage) and roast vegetables, enough for 12 people, on a plain old Weber. Grant took over for the fish. A good time was had.

It’s plenty fun being around an international cast of characters. Guillem Balague told a funny story about doing voiceovers for a European soccer videogame. To cover players who master the game, he has to announce scores up to 99—in three voices, one ebullient if the player scores—Goal! And it’s 99-3!—one neutral, and one in a sad voice if the opponent scores. Now that’s behind-the-scenes stuff you don’t get everywhere.

Friday was the U.S. game, for which we had seats about 10 rows up on the goal line where all five goals were scored. If the England game was a tie that felt like a win, Slovenia was a tie that felt like a loss. Lots of people managed to be happy afterward—still chanting U-S-A U-S-A—but I couldn’t get over the lost (stolen) opportunity.

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