Friday, 16 July 2010

Exactly a year on from the best day of our lives (10th July 2009) we marked our first anniversary in Johannesburg, South Africa and on the 11th, experienced the second best day of our lives at the World Cup Final in Soccer City Stadium.

You could say it's been a good year!

I won a trip to the World Cup Final in a Hyundai UK competition on Facebook, where entrants were to submit a video explaining "What Would You Trade?" for people to vote on.

I was willing to give up my collection of 23 football shirts and the rest, as they say, is history.

The once-in-a-lifetime prize was, unbelievably, somehow even better than I expected.

It's not often that I'm lost for words, but summing up this weekend is impossible. I can only give a flavour of how amazing it was, so bear in mind that no amount of description can match simply being there at the time!

I was very conscious every time I took a photo or video that seeing it later on the laptop screen would be simply nowhere near as good as actually experiencing the moment we were capturing.

We made good friends with the other competition winners and the whole group agreed that the words "Savour this!" were never far from your thoughts.

As if the Final itself wasn't all you could ever wish for in any sane football fan's dreams, we were also treated to; flights with free meals and drink, transfers to our luxury apartments, a round of drinks on arrival, a three course meal with free alcohol flowing all night, transfers to the game, hospitality with all you could eat and drink, and Category 1 tickets for the game itself.

Sound good? It doesn't even scratch the surface of how awesome this weekend was! Everything was better than you could imagine.

Take the three course meal for example. Hyundai picked up the bill as we tucked into steaks, beers, wine, the lot.

Who could ask for more than that? Not us, but in keeping with the whole weekend the night just got better and better, as the Dutch brass band made a spontaneous appearance to entertain diners with some truly amazing renditions of football songs like Carnival De Paris. It kicked the atmosphere into overdrive, and as if to tip us over the edge the Budweiser girls appeared with free merch and enough buckets filled with complimentary bottles of Bud to get even the most seasoned alcoholic absolutely legless.

The free flights were equally amazing, as they were filled with loads of football stars and celebs. Over the course of the weekend we shared a flight with or even met in Johannesburg: Andy Townsend, Edwin Van Der Saar, Gareth Southgate, Mark Lawrenson, Vincent Del Bosque, Brian Bowey, Ray Parlour, Frank Skinner, David Baddiel, Jim Rosenthal and Raymond Van Barneveld.

I am by no means a star spotter or celeb botherer so for the most part, it was just really cool to keep the company of these guys. It reminded you that ordinary punters like me are normally nowhere near events like this! But one guy who I admittedly lost my cool over and had to go pester for a pic was the greatest Scottish football player of all time, Kenny Dalglish.

How could anyone from my neck of the woods fail to be delighted at meeting the biggest legend of our game just days after taking in the World Cup Final?!

I could go on all day about the little extras that tipped the trip into the realms of extra special, but the game itself dominates my every thought of the weekend just past.

The excitement hit what I thought was top gear as we were handed our Final tickets on the bus, and rounded the corner to get our first glimpse of Soccer City stadium.

But the venue is not best viewed from afar. After making the trek round to the gates and waiting for them to swing open and unveil the entrance to Wonka's football factory, you were now so close you could touch it, with so many crazy Dutch nutters around that you felt lost in a football heaven. You felt like you had leapt into your television set and landed in Jo'burg.

Fast forward through over £100 (or 1000 Rand) worth of programmes, souveniers and footie shirts, then past the wining and dining of truly world class hospitality, and it was time for this moment I had been anticipating so badly; I had only looked forward to it for the three weeks since winning the competition, but in earnest I had been dreaming about it my whole life.

Jen summed the Closing Ceremony up perfectly: "This alone was worth it"

I could tell from the big screens that it must have looked just as special on TV as it did in the flesh, but the buzz lent to the experience by 85,000 fans who had taken their seats a full two hours before kick off was like nothing I've ever seen. Even the mighty vuvus fell silent for the ceremony!

You could have ended our night there and then and I would have been delighted. Fortunately there was more to come...

We had the best seats in the house for what we were about to witness. Right at the half way line, just 7 rows back, so close you could almost kick the ball!

The atmosphere grew and grew: helicopters beamed the imminent arrival of the team buses on the big screens; the players emerged to warm up; Nelson Mandela made an appearance(!!!); and finally the teams came out to line up.

Believe me, the irritating sound of the vuvuzelas you hear on television is nothing like the awesome roar that travels around the ground. You couldn't hear the ref's whistle for noise.

The game itself I don't need to describe as you are almost certainly one of the 20 million UK viewers who tuned in...

What I will say is that I'm shocked upon coming home to hear people say it wasn't a great match.

Being there obviously added to my enjoyment so many times over, but other than a nervy first half I genuinely though it was great entertainment for a 0-0.

I have yet to rewatch it but off the top of my head we had the excitement of: countless yellow cards, Robben clean through twice, Sergio Ramos' glorious chance, Fabregas one on one with Stekelenburg, Puyol's header, several Xavi free kicks, a few Sneijder screamers, a couple of world class saves at both ends, the drama of extra time and potentially penalties, and Holland being reduced to 10.

Of course it made for a better game being there in the flesh, as the whole stadium gasped every time we thought we were about to witness a goal.

And here's a fact: noone screamed louder than I did when Andres Iniesta scored in extra time in the 117th minute.

Not one Spain fan went half as mental as the daft Scot jumping for joy in Block 125!

Anyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I always root for Spain in tournaments. More importantly, Iniesta is my favourite footballer of all time.

I didn't even dare to dream before the game that he might score, but for it to come in the dying minutes of extra time made for such a special moment that I will never forget it. I can still see a replay of it in my head every time I think back!

Again, the words will fail to do the rest of the night justice so just picture the aftermath. I could have flown back to the apartment I was so high with adrenaline, but before that there was the small matter of more food and drink in the hospitality tent. I could go on and on and on and on about this weekend...

No matter how much I blether on to people, how many stories I recount from my adventure in South Africa, or how many times we go through the photos, all I have now are the memories of the time that my family and friends sent me to the World Cup Final.

I want to say "Thank you!" again and I mean it even more now than I did before. You guys are the best.

I'll be in touch about my campaign to get to Brazil 2014...

Friday, 9 July 2010

Tonight, Johannesburg readies itself for the end of South Africa's World Cup 2010. Sepp Blatter waits in the wings, ready to close the curtain on a tournament that can be described in one word as "unique".

The wonderful event has been the first of it's kind on African soil and billions around the world have scarcely been able to look away as it has reached it's climax, with Holland or Spain set to make history - this will be a first win for either team, and the only time a European nation has won it outwith their continent. 

While the eyes of the world may be on Jo'burg, mine are not quite there yet; Jennifer and I arrived in London today to collect our World Cup Final tickets and to fly out to Africa for the second most memorable weekend of our lives, exactly one year after getting married.

I'd argue that I'm more excited than the Dutch and Spanish squads put together!

Any intention to blog on the World Cup has fallen by the wayside in recent weeks as I had a week off work whilst my best mate Thomas was visiting (we spent it watching 13 simultaneous games). 

Every waking moment I have had since then has been spent either working, or fretting over arrangements for our trip (flight confirmation only came through on Wednesday!)... I have also just barely found time to watch the footie!

The build up has been a lot tamer than I expected, as I have been so nervous about getting everything in place for our trip that I have not had a great chance to fully digest our prize.

Newsround, of all things, changed that last night. As I flicked channels, I caught their World Cup broadcast live from outside Soccer City Stadium, where the reporter noted that in three days time the place would be buzzing with 95,000 fans eager for the kickoff of the World Cup Final between Holland and Spain.

It was all I could do not to start shouting at the TV in glee!

My phone battery is fading as fast as the hype around Wayne Rooney and our train is nearly at Heathrow Airport, so I had better wrap things up; suffice to say I will have a LOT to talk about on here after Sunday, so check back next week.

To finish, I will go on record as backing Spain to win, as I have done at every tournament since my own nation of no-hopers last took part in 1998. I had a fiver on them at 4/1 before a ball was kicked, so hopefully I can collect that to round off what will be an absolutely perfect weekend.

I'm buoyed by the fact that Paul the octopus agrees with my pick...