We arrive in Jo-Burg!

By CHRIS ZIEMER

(Editor’s note: Chris Ziemer, Sonoma Academy athletic director and head girls soccer coach, is blogging for The Press Democrat at the World Cup in South Africa).

3 a.m. Tuesday (June 8th)

Johannesburg-

Welcome to South Africa…

After months of anticipation (actually, four years) and almost 30 hours en route, I finally arrived in Johannesburg (Joburg).

You only get one chance at a first impression and South Africa scored big-time with me.

My flight was just a few minutes late, our bags arrived quickly (and at first glimpse intact) and customs went very quickly as soccer afficionados from the globe arrived to join the celebration.

As I strolled through the airport, which I found very clean and welcoming, World Cup ads, welcome signs and staff were everywhere you turned.

At SFO there was very little indicating the approaching tournament, and World Cup fever had yet to catch (hopefully it will).

In London’s Heathrow, you could definitely feel the excitement and get a pulse of the importance of the event for England. Joburg was, well off the charts…as it should be as the host nation.

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Arriving in Terminal 1 – Germany (the team, not the country), Shakira & me …

On the tarmac next to us, I was a bit surprised to see a half-dozen men with machine guns (they looked machine-like anyways) and a noticeable police presence. It turns out ‘Der Mannschaft’ had arrived and it was evident that FIFA takes no risks with arriving teams.

Interestingly enough, Shakira, who is in town for the Kickoff concert on Thursday also arrived with a high powered entourage. I made my way to the exit and wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I stepped into the open airport for the first time. Would there be a buzz, as the event had yet to start?

Most importantly, would I be able to find the driver who was there to pick me up?

Before I could answer either of these questions, I turned the corner into thousands of people, a few hundred with a sea of signs as apparently, everyone arriving that day had a driver waiting.

Cameras and crews from around the World, giving interviews, and waiting for the German team and presumably stars like Shakira. The place was absolutely electric.

I quickly made out camera crews speaking a half-dozen languages (it took everything I had not to step into a few interviews), but at first glimpse, I was unable to find the ‘SportsMark- Chris Ziemer’ which had been promised would be waiting upon my arrival.

I made another loop and finally saw a sign for Sony, one of the World Cup partners and a client of SportsMark.

They were kind enough to provide two extra sets of eyes and we quickly spotted my sign and driver. The place is definitely buzzing though…

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Security and safety at every turn…

SportsMark has no problem with me contributing to the blog, but due to safety concerns I will be able to provide limited specifics of my duties.

I will be working with FIFA partners and sponsors and security and safety is on everyone’s mind. Prearranged travel with reliable transportation services, armed escorts as needed, and as I found out today, super secure office vaults.

Today was a meeting and prep day for me, and I spent two-thirds of it in a collection of offices which have been set up in a vault-like fortress. Armed guards at the gate, many of their staff with handguns, and a high level fingerprint scan entry, all of which combine for a very safe working and storage environment.

I was hoping I would be issued a gun of my own…nothing too big, just one which I could carry over my shoulder which would roughly translate to “don’t mess with me.”

Seriously, I’ve never owned a gun and don’t plan to need one here.

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Airports lead me to believe the pressure will be on England when they take on USA…

Let’s not kid ourselves. The pressure is on England.

Not just the pressure of the game, but the pressure of the country. By no means am I saying the U.S. fans don’t care about the Cup, as this blog is evidence that people do care.

However, in London, every paper or magazine worth anything, is providing in-depth coverage. Front page headlines and stories about everything from English player Rio Ferdinand’s injury to the added pressure England’s head coach Fabio Capello faces.

World Cup guides lined the shelves. The interest, and with interest comes the pressure, is something very “real.” I’m not talking “real” like the token Time Magazine cover or USA today World Cup guide I saw at SFO.

By “real” I mean the estimated 20 World Cup full color, 150-plus page guides, the potato chip bags, the soda cans and candy bars all with the English FA logo, an English player or a reference to the upcoming World Cup.

The English uniforms are on display and for sale. There are banners and promos involving the Three Lions or World Cup at every turn. All of this added up, equals that while U.S. fans all hope we can knock off England, the pressure to win is on England.

If I were a Vegas oddsmaker and had to guess the ratio of pressure on the two teams just from being at SFO and Heathrow, I would say it’s close to 50:1. Maybe even closer to 100:1.

That’s “real” and the English team carries that pressure with them every time they step on the field. Over the years, Capello has been masterful about turning that pressure into results, leading Milan, Juventus, Roma and Real Madrid to titles. Can he duplicate that success at the World Cup level? Time will tell…

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Flags galore which says it all- South Africa is extremely proud to host the World Cup…

As we left the airport, the streets were lined with flags from around the World, but mainly South African flags.

On virtually every street-corner, cars are bombarded by street vendors, many clad in brightly colored overalls, selling items to passengers- mainly newspapers and flags. There were flags which fly from the car window, normal sized flags, and the one which caught my eye is the side mirror socks which about every 10th car has.

It reminded me of Germany in 2006, where for the first time in recent memory, the Germans proudly displayed their flags en masse. If the number of South African flags I saw today indicates their excitement and pride in hosting the Cup, they are ready to roll. It was also evident from speaking with South African folks throughout the day that this opportunity means a lot to them and their entire continent. They are extremely proud to be hosting the Cup, and they want to get it right.

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Other World Cup experiences…

Hello Mr. President…

I bumped into Sunil Gulati, U.S.S Soccer president at the FIFA ticket center today. He looked calm, unlike the rest of the crowd, all of which were eager to get their hands on tickets.

It was a bit strange that he was wearing an England scarf and Brazil T-shirt.

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African winter feels like summer…

The weather was beautiful today. Approx 55-60 degrees and clear. I’m regretting packing that 14th jacket in anticipation of the African winter.

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Jordan Skubic in the house…

A former student and soccer player at Sonoma Academy, where I serve as the athletic director, is here working.

It was great to see a familiar face and spend the day with Jordan and the rest of the SportsMark staff. He is seasoned well beyond his years and we switched student/teacher roles today as he ran me through what I could expect.

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Word/saying of the day…

Howzsit (I’m guessing on the spelling), which is how most people greet one another. How is it or how are you, all put together quickly. I’m hoping tomorrow I learn how to respond.

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My “I’m at the World Cup in South Africa” moment for today…

Stepping into South Africa and into the masses of media, security and hospitality staff at the airport, spending a good portion of my first day in a vaulted office with security measures worthy of a James Bond film, catching up with a former student, and BEING AT THE WORLD CUP!