World Cup 0, pre-season 1

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“So you are telling me that you’d prefer to watch Manchester United’s meaningless pre-season tour rather than the World Cup finals?”

The question was a legitimate one and I answered honestly, in the affirmative. It was from a sports editor offering work in South Africa, but I preferred to go to the States and perhaps I’ve enjoyed the World Cup more because I’ve not been there.

Mates and colleagues in South Africa are having a good time – though the distances between venues have caused significant headaches.

There hasn’t been the crime wave which some tabloids predicted, the hosts have been superb, the stadiums too. I preferred to remember my times visiting the stadiums a year ago and sensing the anticipation and excitement of the South Africans - including the lady in the information office at the Durban stadium who was so proud she almost cried. Pleased also because the stadium was taking the name of Moses Mabhida, a former ANC activist.

And I laughed as Jonathan Pearce described Port Elizabeth so favourably, because when I visited in 2008 for the Orlando Pirates v Kaiser Chiefs game, I was advised against walking the streets alone.

The area around the new stadium was dangerous, not that a commentator being shuttled from hotel to venue and reading tourist bumph would know. I can smile at the memory of the two policemen who pulled me over near East London.

“It’s just a random check,” one said before checking my papers, “Relax.” They were bored and, upon realising I was English, wanted to talk football.

“Your newspapers have been writing that we’re all savages,” one said. “Let me tell you, we are the friendliest people around.”

They thought England would do well in South Africa. So did most of the players I interviewed for FourFourTwo in February – major, respected stars who believed that England would reach the semi-finals.

England were third favourites to win the World Cup with British bookmakers. How was a situation of such ridiculous over expectation allowed to develop?

But then who could have predicted this World Cup?

Had you told me that New Zealand would remain unbeaten, Japan would progress from the group stage while France and Italy wouldn’t, I would have questioned your sanity.

And that Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney wouldn’t score a goal between them, and that Cristiano Ronaldo would be such a disappointment.

If Netherlands lose the final on Sunday it would make New Zealand the only unbeaten team in the World Cup finals. They have two players who are not even professionals.

I’ve watched it all from afar because I needed a rest and to recharge after a season travelling to over 70 live games. South Africa is not an easy country to move around either. It’s vast and beautiful, but you can’t just jump on a train and be in a neighbouring city in an hour, unless you are travelling in the Soweto, Johannesburg, Pretoria corridor.

I didn’t like the greed evident before the finals either. Even in these times of a weak sterling, South Africa is great value for tourists. Yet flights from Europe doubled and trebled in cost and hotels got greedy.

Prices were sufficiently high to affect ticket sales in Europe and they were dropped as hotel rooms remained unsold. I hope Brazil learns from these mistakes in 2014 and looks at the longer term rather than just going for a quick buck.

Instead of the World Cup, I’m going to drive across America in a few weeks following Manchester United, writing as I go along and making three short films about the trip.

I’ll start in Philadelphia, where United play on 21st July, then travel west through Pittsburgh, Dayton, Manchester (Ohio) and St Louis for the second game in Kansas City.

Then I’ll turn south and head into Texas for the third game in Houston against an MLS All Stars team, but not before staying with the 70s England international Gordon Hill who now lives in Dallas.

In the club versus country argument, there’s only ever been one winner for me.

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