Magazines • Newspapers

Kick off Euro style

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JetAway December 2009

With Man United one of the favourites in the Champions League and the World Cup salivatingly close, JetAway asked footie fanatic Daniel Ford to educate us on Europe’s stars, stadiums and scandals.


The big concrete terracing at Akritas Chloraka (bottom of Cyprus Division 2) is baking hot so I’m sitting on a stray bit of cardboard. There are maybe 100 fans dotted around in the area where my cousin Lewis and I, and thousands of flies, have settled to watch the game against the second-placed side from Larnaca. Just in front of the children aiming toilet rolls quite accurately at the halfway line is a guy hopping about selling tickets. But whether they are for the match we’re watching (the turnstiles were unmanned) or for a raffle is unclear. About the same number of people are dotted around on the terraces behind the goal, a bit of concrete that seems to hang on the hillside. Well, actually, it does hang on the hillside, as the whole stadium is cut into a massive drop from what is little more than a village, situated a few miles from the tourist town of Paphos. The stadium is rubbish, the football is rubbish and youngsters from the home side’s youth team are throwing things at the opposition bigwigs who are sitting in front of me. But I adore every minute of it because I am a football lover.

I’m doing my mid-life crisis thing and living in Cyprus for a few months, running on the beach in the mornings, working in a bar in the afternoons and generally loafing about. Akritas Chloraka’s “stadium” is just a short walk up the hill from my local (where I drink not work). The other ex-pats in the bar can’t believe I can be bothered to trek up the steep hill in the ridiculously hot (winter) heat; copies of this morning’s Mail On Sunday have just arrived and the air-con is turned up high. They order more beers.

A couple of weeks later I jump in my Jeep and drive to the capital, Nicosia, to watch Cyprus hold Germany to a 1-1 draw in a European Championship qualifier. It’s become a habit: I get on a plane, I watch football and visit stadiums. I’ve seen the FIFA Five-a-Side World Championships in Hong Kong, wangled my way into a corporate box in Gothenburg while watching the England under-21s, marvelled at the mad Boca Juniors fans in Buenos Aires, strolled down the tunnel at Real Madrid, even managed an inter-island under-18 match while on honeymoon in Mauritius. Like football? Me?

So you’ll forgive me for believing that the greatest thing to happen in the travel industry was when jumping on a plane to Europe became easier than catching a bus to Huddersfield. Passport? Check. Toothbrush? Check. Football ticket? Check.

Today, when football fans scour the fixtures for matches to watch it’s not just the English leagues they check out – it’s open season on Spain, Italy, France, Hungary and beyond. Here’s some things I’ve learnt about European footie and where to soak up the atmosphere when the game’s over.

THE WORLD’S (SECOND) RICHEST CLUB

With a revenue of £257.1m in 2007-8, Manchester United would have been sitting at the top of the pile in Deloitte’s annual money-making list had the pound not fallen against euro in that period (Real Madrid got the top spot). Expect local rivals Manchester City to leap up from their current position of 20th when the new list is published early in 2010.

THE BEER SPONSORS

Dutch beer brand Heineken sponsors the UEFA Champions League so it’d be downright rude not to show a little support, don’t you think? Luckily for beer drinkers and football fans, Amsterdam is home to one of the most attractive sides on the continent. AFC Ajax, four times European Cup winners, built their reputation by developing home-grown talent (including one of the world’s greatest players, Johan Cruyff ) and gave birth to the phrase “total football”, where players change positions freely during the game. Sadly for them, a 1995 ruling in the European Court of Justice, commonly known as the Bosman Ruling, meant that players out of contract could move clubs for nothing, so the Ajax of the present can be summed up by the phrase “young, gifted and leaving”. Still, console yourself with the fact that the Ajax players you watch today will be the Barcelona and Inter Milan stars of tomorrow.

NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY

Oh dear, Milan football, where to start? Inter Milan (who play in the blue and black kit) and AC Milan (who play in red and black) both call the legendary San Siro stadium home, and both have histories littered with, shall we say, noteworthy events. Clouds hung over Inter’s European semifinal wins in 1964 and 1965 when the team were accused of bribing referees, while just over four decades later AC had points deducted in a similar scandal. Then there are the fans: in 2001 riot police had to stop Inter Milan supporters pushing a motorbike off the second tier of the stadium, and in 2005 a player was injured with a f lare, the same year racist chanting caused an Ivory Coast defender to attempt to walk off the pitch.

Some years earlier, the entire AC side walked off to try to force a replay in a European Cup quarter final that they were losing to Marseille when some floodlights failed. The match was awarded to Marseille and AC were banned from competing in Europe for a whole year.

WHERE’S THE BAR?

It’s certainly not hard to find a bar in Budapest. But boy will you struggle to find the best ones for a cold, post-match Dreher Classic. And it’s no wonder, because the best bars can be found in abandoned buildings, often move locations and are renowned for not advertising. You’ll have to ask a local. Or try the iconic Szimpla (Vll Kertész u 48; 00 36 1 321 5880). You’ll have less trouble finding Stadion Hidegkuti Nándor, which is just a couple of miles east of the river Danube and home to MTK Hungária, a club owned by Gábor Várszegi, a former rock star who gave up his musical career in Hungary to deal diamonds in Los Angeles. As you do…

ART IS FOOTBALL

The first time I went to Barcelona my art-loving companion made me walk a lap of the city admiring the influence of Gaudi and Miró. Then, in the evening, we circled the restaurants to find one Picasso used to frequent. It was mobbed so we ended up eating tacos in a small Mexican place instead. This is where it truly hit me what football means in this city. A group of fans we chatted to made it clear that the club not only represented their Catalan identity but also that football was about winning “beautiful”. The Picasso museum is the second most popular in the city. The first? Barcelona FC, of course, where art meets football.

Daniel Ford is co-author of A Football Fan’s Guide To Europe (New Holland, £14.99). He is pleased to report that Akritas Chloraka have been promoted to Cyprus Division 2 once more

TRAVEL INFO

AC Milan
San Siro, Via Piccolomini 5. 00 39 026 2281. To get there: Metro on Line MM1 (stop Lotto Fiera 2). Tram 16.

Ajax
Amsterdam Arena, Arena Boulevard 1, 1101 AX Amsterdam Zuidoost. 00 31 20 311 1444.
To get there: Metro Line 54 (stop Strandvliet). Buses 29, 59, 60, 62, 137, 158, 174, 175 (stop Bijlmer).

Barcelona,
Camp Nou, Carrer d’Arístides Maillol. 00 34 902 189 900.
To get there: Subway Line 3 (stops Maria Cristina, Palau Reial, Zona Universitària) or Line 5 (stops Collblanc, Badal).
Buses 7, 15, 33, 43, 54, 56, 57, 67, 68, 74, 75, 113, 157, 158, L12, L14, L50, L56, L62.
Trams T1, T2, T3 (stops Avinguda de Xile, Palau Reial, Pius XII).

Inter Milan (as AC Milan). 00 39 02 487 7761.

Manchester United
Old Trafford, Sir Matt Busby Way, Old Trafford. 00 44 161 868 8000.
To get there: Metrolink tram in direction of Altrincham (stop Old Trafford).
Train from mainline stations (stop Manchester United FC Halt).
Buses 17, 114, 115, 252, 253, 254, 255, 256, 257, 263, 264.

MTK
Hungaria Stadion Hidegkuti Nándor, Salgótarjáni út 12-14. 00 36 1 333 8368.
To get there: Metro M2 to Stadionok, then tram 1.

Paris St Germain
24 rue du Commandant Guilbaud, 75016. 00 33 1 4743 7171.
To get there: Metro Line 9 (stop Porte de St-Cloud). Line 10 (stop Porte d’Auteuil).
Buses 22, 32, 52, 62, 72, 123, 175, 189, 241, PC1.

Oh dear, it’s 9-0

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Equinox (South Africa) January 2010

It hurts to lose. But it really hurts to lose 9-0. Just ask Zaire, sub-Saharan Africa’s first qualifers for a World Cup finals in 1974.


 

“When I signed for my first club I was over the moon.” No, no, these are not the words of a top football player looking back on his earliest steps onto the ladder of stardom; they are straight from my mouth. Granted, I was eight at the time and my mum actually did the signing on my behalf in the local butcher’s shop, but the sentiment is still the same.

So there I was as usual, kicking the ball around on the steps at the back of our house; whacking it as hard as I could and trying to control it as it shot back at me off the angles when my mum told me the good news. Well, I could have wet myself. Maybe I did. Me? Signed for a proper club?

What she failed to tell me was that, somewhere between the pork chops, the lamb mince and the sausages, she’d actually signed me up for an under-12 team. Me and my friends, all aged eight, all the players in the teams we played against, aged 11. I think you might get the picture. It was boys against men, or at least little boys against boys who were not so little. Okay, I should come clean here: we did have one 11 year old in our team. He was called Tom. We all called him Big Tom. But what could he do, just one giant against many every week? We were like those munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, running around aimlessly, up against boys who had already started big school and were soon to have hair in places we could never even imagine.

Needless to say we got walloped every week. Lots of goals one week, and even more the next. We managed to hold one team down to six one week and I’m sure our parents applauded us off.

This is why I have a great empathy with the Leopards of Zaire, pictured here playing Yugoslavia in the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Because despite the amazing acrobatic efforts of Illunga Mwepu (just how did he get into that position?) poor old Zaire lost the game 9-0. It remains, to this day, the heaviest defeat ever by a country in a World Cup finals match. (I just love that it’s a record between two countries that no longer really exist playing in another one that no longer exists).

Do you know how hard it is to lose 9-0? It’s pretty tough, it’s like losing 100-zip in rugby. The attacks have to be relentless and the scores have to keep on coming. Basically to lose 9-0 you have to be rubbish. Or eight years old.

Yet Zaire of 1974 were not exactly rubbish. Yugoslavia was their second match in the tournament but they’d only lost their first match 2-0 to Scotland, and they even recovered from their thrashing enough to keep a Brazil that included legends such as Rivelino, Edu and Jairzhino down to three goals. They had got to the finals – becoming the first sub-Saharan African side to ever qualify – by beating a good Zambian side and overwhelming the favourites Morocco.

So what went wrong? They can’t use my excuse of being too small because they were strong and fit, as well as skilful.

Well, it didn’t help that Mulamba Ndaye was sent off after 22 minutes and it can’t have helped that the Yugoslavian player in the photo, Dusan Bajevic, scored a hat-trick with goals in the 8th, 30th and 81st minutes. And it certainly didn’t go unnoticed that Zaire had a Yugoslavian coach, Blagoje Vidinic (and boy, did he get some stick).

But the truth probably lies in fear and money. Speaking about the game many years later, the acrobatic defender Mwepu told the BBC:

“Before the Yugoslavia match we learnt that we were not going to be paid, so we refused to play.”

He was right there. They might have eventually decided to turn up and put on their distinctive green and yellow kit but they certainly didn’t play.

There was also the threat of a certain Mobutu Sese Seko hanging over them. He might have showered them with gifts (a car and house apparently) when they qualified for the finals but the players can have been under no illusions as to how their country’s dictator could turn nasty when things didn’t go his way. You may recall 1974 was also the year Mobutu’s money (that he took from Zaire) brought Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to fight their famous Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, so he certainly knew all about using the positive image of sport. But fear rarely brings the best out in sportsmen and so it was with the Leopards that day against Yugoslavia.

After the game the same man that had lent them use of his presidential jet to fly in style to away matches, asked his strong men to go and have a little chat.

“After the match, he sent his presidential guards to threaten us,” Mwepu remembers in the same interview.

“They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 0-4 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home.”

Well, return home they did, but with a record of played three, lost three, goals for zero and goals against 14, it’s fair to say it wasn’t to another new car and house.

It was left to Tunisia, Africa’s qualifiers four years later, to start rebuilding Africa’s shattered reputation. Thanks to their performances and strong showings in subsequent World Cups from the likes of Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal and others, 2010 will see Africa represented by six nations at a World Cup finals for the first time.

• The date of Zaire’s record-breaking 9-0 defeat in 1974 was 18 June, the same date that Cape Town will host a Group C match in 2010. DR Congo (Zaire) have not qualified for the finals in South Africa.

Slowly slowly

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Signature magazine (South Africa) 2009

Ever considered investing in whisky. Now you can…

It’s something investment guru Warren Buffett certainly advocates. Patience. And if you’re ‘investing’ in barrels of whisky you’re going to need plenty of it. So… deep breath, because this is how it works: first you choose the country you want your whisky to be made in (take your pick from Scotland to America to Australia), hand over your money, see your whisky get put into a barrel and stowed in a warehouse, and then you wait… And you wait. Five, ten, 12, even more years if you are the really patient type before you get your whisky.

So, quite clearly, if you’re after a quick buck then this whisky ‘investing’ is not really your thing. Look, I’m going to drop these quotation marks around ‘investing’ now if it’s okay with you? I think you might have gathered this is an alternative investment. Whisky is not the first, and certainly not the only thing you should put your money into. That said, once you’ve got your RA, stocks, dollars and property in your portfolio what’s wrong with having a fun investment or two? It’s certainly not impossible to make money out of whisky but you shouldn’t bank on it. But you should bank on some great fun and great whisky.

David Cox, who runs the The Macallan En Primeur cask programme (www.themacallan.com), explains what a buyer can expect.

“Those who sign up are invited to the filling day sometime in July or August where they can watch their new spirit being filled, then stowed in one of the warehouses. They will be our guests for the day, joining us for lunch and depending on numbers might be able to stay on site, and finishing off the day with a dinner together. When they leave each owner will take away an oak box with a logbook inside which charts the history of their cask, including the photos of the people who have been involved in the making of their whisky, from those who grew the barley to the team involved in the malting, the mashing, filling, and then stowing of the spirit. In the box will be a small sample of the spirit. Then, 12 years later, the owner will be given another sample so he can compare the effect the ageing and the wood has had on the spirit.

“Periodically the whisky will be checked and nosed by the whisky-maker and the notes relating to the nose and colour will be sent to the owner, which they can put into their logbook.”

It’s not exactly the type of love and attention you receive when you buy some mining shares now, is it? But whisky, through time and good marketing, is a product that has risen above being viewed purely as a commodity. A trend I identified in the South African Whisky Handbook 2008 (SchreiberFord Publications), is that people are looking for VIP experiences when it comes to their whisky: they want to feel special and have something to brag about when among friends. It’s this same reason that will lead you to decide to put you money into a cask of whisky and not more unit trusts, where your only interaction with your money is looking up the latest value in the Sunday Times over breakfast each week.

“Oh that’s good darling, up another two points this week. Another slice of toast and cup of coffee?”

Not quite the same as…

“Oh, I’ve booked our tickets for your business trip to Europe for next month. I left a couple of days free so we could pop up to Scotland and have lunch with our whisky-maker.”

Macallan has been selling casks to individuals for three years and at the time of writing have 25 people signed up. They will only ever accept 20-25 a year.

“At those numbers this is clearly not a big money-making scheme,” admits Cox.  “We are looking to build a tight and exclusive club of Macallan lovers, who want to work with us in choosing the cask and getting to know the people who work here.”

It all goes back to having something special and fun as an investment. A big part of this, as Cox mentioned, is choosing the cask your whisky is aged in. It is the wood, its characteristics and what it was used for before, of course, which play a major part in creating the whisky you will end up with in your bottles.

Macallan offers a choice of wood in which to age with Spanish oak offering flavours of dried fruit, citrus orange and spices, while the American oak which gives coconut, floral and vanilla.

You also choose the size of cask you want. So, are you paying attention at the back? Whisky Casks Lesson 101: a butt and puncheon holds 500 litres, a hogshead 250 litres, and a barrel 200 litres (see costs in box).

An important thing to remember is something called the Angels’ Share. This is the rather cute term the whisky industry uses for evaporation. You can expect to lose approximately two per cent of your spirit every year. Now you know why a 21 Year Old Whisky costs so much.

But a humourous warning when the wait for your whisky is over. Whisky writer and broadcaster Tom Morton recalls being invited to the 21st birthday of his friend’s son. The star attraction at the party was a cask of whisky that the friend had bought proudly on the birth of his son all those years before. Now, 21 years later, it was here, ready to be enjoyed by everyone on the day his son became a man. Where was his son? In the corner with his friends drinking alcopops.

Ah, but what do youngsters know? And, as Tom told me during his story-telling, “Let them drink alcopops. More good whisky for the rest of rest.”

So, just how patient do you have to be with your whisky? If you buy a cask from Macallan you must wait a minimum of 12 years to taste the fruits of your patience. At 12 years you can decide to leave the whisky to age longer if you prefer (like the 21st birthday alcopop man) but extra strorage costs will be incurred on top of your initial fee.

Other distilleries such as Bruichladdich (www.bruichladdich.com) simply state that the ageing period is up to you. Bear in mind the spirit has to be in the cask a minimum of three years to be called Scotch so don’t go getting thirsty a couple of weeks into this venture. Bruichladdich’s initial fee covers insurance and storage for the first ten years after which you will be paying extra.

Michael Thompson from the Bruichladdich distillery supplied the following information:

“After ten years your whisky can be either bottled, sold, part exchanged or

further matured. Whisky evaporates from the cask and the alcohol level falls from the filling strength of 70 per cent to 40 per cent after 40 years; the longer it is kept for, the less there is – but the better it gets.”

On the subjecy of selling your whisky he adds: “In accepting this order, the company expects the purchaser to offer the distillery the opportunity to reacquire your cask if it becomes surplus to your requirements on a ‘first refusal’ basis, at the market rate prevailing at that time. The cask will need to be regauged to confirm it’s current contents [following evaporation]. Once the contents are verified, a price per Regauged Litre of Alcohol (RLA) is employed to work out the offer value for the cask and its contents. The price offered will depend on the actual regauge figure, the type of single malt, the cask type age and market value prevailing at that time. No taxes are due [in the UK] if sold under bond.”

There is also an option to sell back part of your whisky to cover bottling, labeling and duties, so what you receive will cost you no extra, albeit this being  a smaller amount of whisky than you initially purchased.

What you might have noticed is that the costs do not stop once you have bought the whisky. There are storage costs if you age your whisky beyond the original offer (when these kick in and how much varies from distillery to distillery), there will be bottling and labeling costs, delivery, and importantly, duties and taxes. There can also be some sundry costs such as change of ownership and regauging the barrel.

Tullibardine (www.tullibardine.com) the distillery in Perthshire, also offers a chance to buy a cask in the barrel, hogshead and butt sizes together with a certificate, photograph of their cask and their name stenciled onto it.

Glengoyne (www.glengoyne.com) near Glasgow is another distillery to offer casks for sale. Here, you have a mind-boggling 11 choices of wood in which to age your spirit, from fresh bourbon, fresh American sherry and fresh Madeira to second-fill Spanish sherry, a cask that has previously been filled with dry oloroso sherry then Glengoyne whisky. Choices, choices, mmmm.

Scotch not your thing? The iconic Jack Daniel’s (www.jackdaniels.com) also offers a chance to buy a cask. Not the classic No. 7 mind (that of Jack and Coke fame), so make sure taste some Single Barrel and like it, because this is what is on offer from the famous Tennessee distillery. For Jack fans what could be better than a trip to Lyncburg where the whiskey is made, a meeting with master distiller Jeff Arnett and choosing a barrel that will eventually yield about 240 bottles for you?

And for something completely different how about a Tasmanian whisky? The Australia whisky-makers Nant (www.nantdistillery.com.au) promote the same buy-a-cask offer with the smaller 100-litre variety and a maturation period of between four and five years.

So there are certainly some choices and fun to be had but is there really money to be made? Scottish Master of Malt John Lamond warns people to keep their eyes open for ‘get-rich-slowly schemes’ that involve whisky.

“There were a lot of rogue brokers around in the 1990s and this gave the selling of casks a bad name. But things have improved and if you deal through an established distillery you should be fine. But certainly be aware of the size of the barrel you are buying and evaporation rates. Promises of riches are to be avoided.”

Bladnoch (www.bladnoch.co.uk) another distillery offering the chance to buy a cask even gives this warning on its website: “If the only reason you are purchasing a cask is for ‘Investment purposes’ Don’t.”

Macallan’s David Cox repeats the warning. “Some 15-20 years ago the selling of casks was a common thing and a few rogues were involved. Brokers were offering sure-fire investments, and as we know there is no sure-fire investment in anything. This gave the practice a bad name but I think to a large extent that has gone now with people dealing directly with distilleries. We never sell these casks as an investment; this is something to be enjoyed.”

It’s pretty clear that buying whisky casks is no easy-riches scheme (or I wouldn’t be telling you about it) but neither is it rip-off (unless you get caught in a scam like any other venture). This is an investment that can be financially solid and also offers some enjoyment along the way.

“Typical financial assets such as RAs, units trusts and so on might bore you to death but you most probably will find enjoyment from your art and stamp collection. Such assets are typically referred to as “hard assets”. They can, however, be highly speculative and generally require specialist knowledge in a particular field,” says Charl Ten Oever, investment advisor and author of Beat the Crunch (Two Dogs).

“A more recent concept and trend for those investors who would like to expand their investment horizons, personal satisfaction and potential returns in “hard” or alternative assets, is by investing in whisky barrels.

“The benefits are exclusivity, personalised enjoyment, distinctive ‘One of a kind’ concept, possible hedge against future inflation and depreciation, and a fun investment still rendering a good return over a period of time

“The disadvantages? Buyer beware!, can the whisky go bad? In the continued economic crunch can you sell the bottles?

“As with all financial matters, and most things in life, the attitude you chose to adopt when considering investment decisions is vital. Don’t think of investing as a means to make a quick buck, rather learn the ground rules, do your homework and look at this type of investment as a long-term journey to personal satisfaction and enjoyment…”

What it will cost*

First payment: to cover the cost of the new make spirit, the cask, and forward charges for 12 years to cover warehouse rental, storage, insurance etc.

Butt/puncheon (500 litres) £9,000 (R112,500)

Hogshead (250 litres): £4,900 (R61,250)

Barrel (200 litres): £3,800 (R47,500)

Second payment: to cover bottling, label design and origination (a forecast).

Butt/puncheon (500 litres): £4,200. Approx outturn after 12 years at 40% abv is 784 bottles @ 75cl.

Hogshead (250 litres): £2,100 Approx outturn after 12 years at 40% abv is 410 bottles @ 75cl.

Barrel (200 litres): £1,700 Approx outturn after 12 years at 40% abv is 313 bottles @ 75cl.

Third payment: delivery and duties to SARS

* Costs are an example from Macallan. There are many other conditions and each distilleries terms vary.

The cheaper alternative

Investing in whisky without spending a fortune

If you’re not quite ready to plunge into the whisky futures market but still want to dip your toe into it there are some cheaper alternatives that will still leave you with a warm glow.

• On certain commemorative bottles of Jack Daniel’s you can register your bottle online and receive a certificate of registration (www.jackdaniels.com).

• How about a personalised bottle of whisky? You get to bottle the spirit from a pre-aged cash, cork it yourself and have your name written on the label and recorded in a logbook in the Visitors’ Centre. Benromach (www.benromach.com) offer this option but you have to be there to do it! £50 (R625)

• Johnne Walker, through the Whisky Exchange (http://www.whiskyexchange.com) offer you a bottle of their whiskyn with your name engraved on it. Choose your words online and preview it before buying. Go for a bottle of Blue at £135.70 (R1696)

• Don’t even care about the whisky? Buy a used barrel at Euros 150 ex delivery (R1500) and put some plants in it maybe? Or dare I suggest you just fill it with ice and Amstel lagers next time you have friends round (www.barrel-shop.com).

The Big Test

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Equinox (South Africa) June 2009

From June 14-28, South Africa hosts football’s eight-team Confederation Cup – and the world will be watching to see if we can deliver a successful global tournament a year before the big one in 2010.

When I was about seven my mum asked me if I thought I’d be able to walk home from school on my own one day the following week. It would be my first time. How grown up. Well, in fact, I wouldn’t be walking all the way home but just to the community centre close to my school, where she would be with my little sister at some community centre type event.

“Of courrrrrse!” I exclaimed in that “Awww mum, don’t treat me like a baby” voice.

But she wasn’t sure, so she drove me down to the school there and then, dropped me outside the school gates and told me to start walking as she crawled along the road to see if I could navigate the one corner and the two hundred-metre journey without getting lost.

Well, to use football terminology, which is what this article is about after all, I started strongly, silenced the taunts from the opposition crowd (my sister), employed some clever footwork around the corner and finished the job in style as I entered the community centre grounds. A big hug from my manager (“Aww mum”) and I was duly awarded the You Can Now Do It For Real trophy.

This is what is known as a trial run. A test for the main event. Of course, it didn’t follow that because I had passed the test successfully I would turn the correct corner come the big day but usually if the trial run goes well then the main event runs smoothly too.

And so it is with June’s Confederation Cup. It is a trial run. A test for the biggest single sporting event in the world: the Football World Cup. Okay, okay, the Olympics does attract more viewers but this is only because it includes numerous sports, most of which no-one actually watches in the four years between the Games. And, whisper it, but it makes the world cup of our beloved game of rugby appear like an under 10s tournament in Bethlehem.

A total of 200 countries entered the 2010 World Cup (qualifying started back in August 2007) and, in case the hype has escaped you somehow, we will host the final 32 next year. It’s not something you generally want to cock up to be honest. And to get our very own version You Can Now Do It For Real trophy from FIFA, the sport’s governing body, we need to host the Confederation Cup.

Now no-one has said exactly what will happen if we completely cock-up the trial run because it has never happened before, but it should be said that even the Germans encountered some teething problems at their Confederation Cup trial run in 2005. The Germans, the ever-efficient Germans, yes. Oh dear.

The tournament has, in the past, been held every two years, but FIFA have declared that it will now be every four years, and scheduled a year before the World Cup, which is tantamount to making it the official dress rehearsal for the host nation. No pressure then.

The Confederation Cup is the only FIFA tournament, apart from the World Cup itself, where nations representing every continent come together. So joining the World Cup holders (Italy) and the hosts (that’ll be us) we have Spain (Europe), Brazil (South America), the USA (North and Central America), Iraq (Asia), Egypt (Africa) and New Zealand (Oceania).

If you’re wondering where Australia are, they now play in the Asian qualifiers, clearing the way for New Zealand to be the One-Eyed King in the Land of the Blind, who have had to beat off such sporting giants as Vanuatu and New Caledonia for the right to be here. That’s also the qualifying section that originally included American Samoa, who somehow managed to let in 38 goals in four matches, featuring a 15-0 defeat to the mighty Vanuatu (can anyone pinpoint that on a map?). They did manage a goal against the Solomon Islands though, bless.

The ‘All Whites’, as the national side are known (All Whites for football, All Blacks for rugby, geddit?), will rely heavily on the top-level experience of tough defender Ryan Nelson, who plays for Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, Steven Old and Chris Killen who play in Scotland, and Simon Elliot, now in the USA.

The upside of having the one-eyed king in the tournament, however, is that they are in our group (Group A). South Africa has the added burden of not only making sure things run smoothly off the field, but also putting on a good show on it. Whether it’s added pride, the home support, or the familiar weather and food, host nations generally enjoy a turbo boost into their performances in big tournaments (think ‘home country wins more gold medals at Olympics’ type headlines). It’s all rather embarrassing and a real dampener if the host flops. Yes, yes, the worst-case scenario would be if the ticketing systems failed, the traffic snarled up and our boys were beaten in every game.

But fear not, if the real Bafana Bafana turn up there’s no reason to think we won’t enjoy the usual home team turbo boost in the Confederation Cup. The nation will be looking to the flair of Orlando Pirates’ Teko Modise, and, Ryan Nelson’s team-mates from Blackburn – the solidity of skipper Aaron Mokoena and the prolific scoring of Benni McCarthy. We are sure to enjoy more goals from our record international goalscorer if, a) he doesn’t suffer a mystery injury two minutes after finishing a Premier League match and, b) he doesn’t retire from international football for the umpteenth time.

Indeed, Brazilian coach Joel Santana has a wealth of home- and European-based talent to draw on and with the vuvuzela loudly behind him, he will be confident of keeping us all happy in June. Whether he can carry the hoped-for Confederation Cup success into 2010 is unsure though: the South African national body has employed 16 coaches in 17 years while Santana himself has swapped jobs 24 times since 1991. ‘Job’ and ‘sticking at it’ are not words that go together with these two.

Also in Group A is a country that has more American soldiers in it than footballers. Quite how Iraq are thriving on the football field is anyone’s guess, but the team, which includes Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni players, are indeed the current Asian champions, beating Australia and South Korea on route to the championship in 2007. Celebratory gunfire rang out as crowds gathered in Baghdad after the final victory over Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that about 50 people had died in terrorist attacks during similar semi-final celebrations only a few days earlier.

After years of little hope, it was a risk they obviously felt worth taking as supporters of a team that are not even able to play their home matches in Iraq – recent world cup qualifiers were played in Dubai and Damascus – because of the war. Despite a strong pedigree – Iraq qualified for the World Cup finals in 1986 – football was not a happy sport under Saddam Huissein. His brother Uday ran the Sports Ministry and had some strange motivational methods.

“I was taken to a camp outside Baghdad,” former captain Habib Jaffar is reported to say after his side had lost an Olympic qualifying match to Oman. “Guards thrashed my feet and made me jump into a vat of raw sewerage when the skin had been flayed off.” He recalls the guards shouting “for the honour of Saddam Hussein” each time they hit him. It was not uncommon, with players, coaches and journalists all targeted.

The squad are home-based or play in neighbouring countries but are coached by the highly experienced Bora Milutinovic who has led Mexico, Costa Rica, the USA, Nigeria and China at the World Cup finals.

“So”, sigh South Africans contentedly, “we have a group that includes New Zealand and Iraq.” Alas, the silver lining comes under a rather big cloud in the shape of Spain, currently the world’s best side. Yes, yes, I know everyone loves Brazil, but Spain are the new Brazil. Just they wear red. Traditionally Spain were the side everyone loved to tip for success only to see them flop, time after time, when it really mattered.

“Oh not again”, football fans would cry.

“They look so good, they play so well, and fail yet again.”

But then in 2008, after a wait of 44 years since their only previous major trophy and numerous false dawns, Spain won Euro 2008. And in a style that was reminiscent of Brazil at their full-flowing beautiful best. Just in red. With players like Liverpool’s Fernando Torres, Valencia’s David Villa and a played six-won six record in the world cup qualifiers to date, this is the test for everyone.

The World Cup will feature 12 stadiums, but because this is a smaller tournament just four will be used for the Confederation Cup. Which is just as well really because most of the others are still being built. The four stadiums to be used are Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium and Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Yes, yes, I know, three of these are essentially rugby stadiums, but we can’t have the likes of Brazil and Italy coming over here and have them play in half-finished places could we? The construction workers would get in the way.

Group B is altogether more competitive. Brazil: beautiful, sexy, pacy, confident and popular. And that’s just the supporters. This is the side that epitomises the game at its very best, they are the team everyone fears and everyone wants to play at the same time. Names such as Robinho, Maicon, Kaká and Adriano lead to charge to establish yet another legendary Brazilian side.

Although the South Americans have won the World Cup a record five times, the world champions honour currently sits with Italy. If there is one country that can match the passion of Brazil on and off the football field it’s the Azzurri, as Italy are known by their fans. But, and this is the big but, the passion reveals itself in a completely different form. Italy are the antithesis to Brazil. For creativity substitute organisation, for individual flair substitute teamwork, for attack substitute defend. Although the image has been shed to a large degree in recent years, the negative defensive style of catenaccio (meaning ‘door-bolt’) still hangs over Italian football.

The Italians also have a penchant for scandal and corruption. In 1927 Torino were stripped of the title after referee-bribery came to light, in 1980 Milan and Lazio were forcibly relegated after involvement in match-fixing and in 2005 Juventus had two titles taken away for more of the same. The bad news: the Azzurri fed off the scandals of the latter two to bounce back and win the following world titles (1982 and 2006). The good news: there has been no scandal before this Confederation Cup.

Real Madrid’s Fabio Cannavaro captains a side that will be looking to Andrea Pirlo, who plays for Milan, to supply the inspiration from midfield.

Egypt’s swagger in Africa (champions six times and a top-four finish seven other times) has failed to translate into global success. They have qualified just twice and failed to win a game in the World Cup finals.

To the largely home-based squad, European experience from Mido and Amr Zaki (Wigan), Mohamed Shawky (Middlesborough) and Mohamed Zidan (Borussia Dortmund) can be added.

The USA have never been that bad (they finished third in 1930 and beat England in the 1950 World Cup) but since the 1990s, with the added boost of hosting the World Cup in 1994, they have emerged as a genuine and consistent threat as more of their players gain experience in top-level European leagues. Heaven help the rest of us when they decide to really take this sport seriously.

The speed of home-based Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy) and DaMarcus Beasley, who plays for Rangers in Scotland, is enough to upset the best of defenders, while goalkeeper Tim Howard (Everton) and midfielder Clint Dempsey (Fulham) provide English Premier League experience.

So that’s what it boils down to: eight teams, four stadiums and a 15-day football tournament. But behind the scenes there are a million things required to ensure it runs smoothly and good performances needed from a team that has to hold up the pride of the home nation. What awaits is FIFA’s little-known You Can Now Do It For Real trophy.

Get off your horse

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Traveller Magazine (South Africa) December 2009

John Wayne has a lot to answer for when it comes to my travel bug says Daniel Ford.

John Wayne’s to blame. Or maybe it was my dad, who made me a big fan of John Wayne. He was my dad’s hero and in turn, as we sat watching his films night after night, he became mine.

And there was good reason too. Young, good-looking, he’d ride into town, beat up all the bad guys, and win the heart of the prettiest girl every time (John Wayne not my dad). I was too young to care about the bad guys (the good guys always won anyway) or the girl (they usually had silly squeaky voices), but the riding into town without a care in the world won me over. If this was travel I wanted it.

THE LUCKY TEXAN (1934) by Lone Star Productions (Certificate U)

[Sound effects from downstage] Galloping horse hooves.

[Enter from downstage] A stranger on a horse.

Old-timer: “Morning stranger.”

Stranger: “Hi old-timer, guess you don’t remember me?”

Old-timer: “Can’t say as I do, but there’s something mighty familiar about you.”

Stranger: “Well Jake, guess it’s been a long time since you taught me how to catch coyote and ride…”

It’s a scene I’ve been trying to recreate every time I travel (without the horse, except on holiday in Majorca once when I nearly fell off a mangy old thing that didn’t like tourists) because being the stranger in town has a hypnotic attraction. Nobody knows you, responsibilities and problems are left behind and opportunities for the future are endless. Maybe you’ll stay, maybe you’ll go, you are what you are and your luggage is all wrapped up in a small bag. And when it comes to clothes, just three of each item as John Wayne would have said: one on, one off and one in the wash. Except for your boots, which stay on all the time, of course.

My business partner, Grant, says he’s going to produce a book called Where in the World is Daniel? his personal variation on the Where’s Wally series. If he carries through on his threat I shall demand that my cartoon character has a big cowboy hat. Er, and a new laptop. Technology has made it possible to travel more frequently while still carrying out business and hurray for that, because who wants to be tied to a desk? I’ve written a chapter for a book while on a sabbatical in Cyprus, drawn up a contract while on a long-distance bus heading to the coast in Venezuela and finalised a book promotion on the road to watch a game of football in Newcastle, England. Thank you technology. Hang on, don’t tell me you are one of those people who still leaves one of those, “Sorry I am out of the office till the 23rd” messages on your e-mail?”

The truth is, once you start travelling it is difficult to stop. The word Wanderlust comes from German, meaning ‘wander desire’. Can there be a better way to describe how the cowboys in the movies drifted around from town to town, devouring the essence of new places as they went? But be warned, it’s a desire that’s impossible to sate. Each new experience, every new person you meet, and each mouthful of unusual food you taste, just leads to a greater need to keep moving. The John Waynes of the world knew it and didn’t fight it; they just kept moving. Today, armed with an iPhone and a keyboard, a Gucci holdall and a Gold card, there’s no reason for anything to be different.

So I’ll keep riding into new towns, ever the stranger. Just without the horse if that’s okay with you.

Fast vehicles and peeing in your pants

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GQ magazine (South Africa) November 2003

racing14

This is a story about very fast vehicles, handlebar moustaches and peeing in your pants.

But let us start at the beginning. Which in the case of this story happens to be a giant, red, inflatable arch, covered in the logos of motor racing sponsors.

I am standing on the icy-cold and rock-hard rugby field of Tarkastad, a small farming town in the Eastern Cape, and have just pulled on the cream overalls of Boy Stone, South Africa’s current off-road racing co-driving champion. His name is embroidered over my heart in red logo type and my boxer shorts and a GQ T-shirt are all else that stand between me and the minus something winds whistling through the air.

It is just minutes from the start of the time-trial of the Tarkastad 400, the 5th Round of the South African National Off-Road Championship. And I am about to become a co-driver for Greg Harvey, who, along with the man whose overalls I am wearing, won the SA championship in the Special Vehicles category last year (They also won together in 1998, and Harvey with another co-driver, Lionel Acton, in 1995).

Harvey has not raced since picking up the championship trophy for the third time, six months ago but has invited me to join him for his ‘last’ race, here in in his home area. He is chairman of Settlers, the off-road club which organises the race; his company, Queen Motor Spares, are the sponsors; and his wife, Ronell, is the race meeting secretary; so you could say he’s pretty closely involved with the weekend’s event.

A mud-splattered truck inches its way along the first few metres of the start line, spraying water into the ground to keep down the dust for when the vehicles eventually screech away. The spectators, who are hanging around the ‘pits’ chatting to drivers and peering into engines, as if a genie will appear when the mechanics rub something next time, don’t seem the type that would be bothered by a bit of dust.

But the ground-wetting ceremony has another useful function to my mind: it creates a cartoon-like start, with each vehicle battling to get grip on the newly greased surface, then shooting off as if they’d been held back by elastic when the first few, wet metres have been successfully negotiated. Dust is replaced by mud. It makes for great TV.

It is is my extensive off-road experience from TV (I saw it on Supersport once), that must have been the attraction for Harvey in picking up the phone and asking me to join him as co-driver. Either that or he’s heard of my co-driving skills from my wife.
‘Left, left, I told you left. Oh, yes, sorry, I didn’t see that. No, you carry on while I check the map again.’
And, it seems, news of my talents has spread far and wide. For when I arrive at Tarkastad to register for the race I see that we have inexplicably been seeded 10th out of 51 starters (a lineup which includes Giniel de Villiers who raced in the Dakar rally earlier this year). Our seeding is presumably down to Harvey’s three-time champion driver status and my co-driving skills in equal measure.

As we queue with the other vehicles, waiting our turn behind the start line for the time trial, two racers in matching shiny-blue overalls approach me and ask if there is a one-minute delay between the start of each vehicle.
‘No, it’s two minutes’, Harvey tells them. ‘Where are you starting?’
‘Forty-eighth’.
‘Oh, we’re 10th,’ I respond with a self-satisfied smile, then nod, hoping they’ll go away and not watch my attempt at getting into the car for the first time. I don’t think I’ve got in a car through its roof before.
Around us there are many racing ‘couples’ in matching overalls, all doing their best to look macho in the slightly homo-erotic stretch outfits, tightened with the little elastic waistband, which I avoid doing up. Every second racer or mechanic seems to have a handlebar moustache. Stretch outfits. Handlebar facial hair. It looks like the platteland’s annual audition for the Village People.

But they could be all be dressed as Mary Poppins and singing children’s nursery rhymes as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got the matter of peeing in my pants to consider.
‘When was the last time you wet yourself?’ Harvey had asked me. ‘Because we don’t stop; it wastes time. If you want to go, you have to do it in your overalls.’
But before I have time to consider my options, it’s ‘Go, go, go’ of a different sort and we are off across ridiculously rough terrain at ridiculously fast speeds. Human-sized sharp rocks, and inhuman-sized holes blur past while my body bounces around in the cab like a newly burst piece of popcorn.
‘What’s the odo reading?’ Harvey asks through the radio that links our crash helmets.
‘Eighteen,’ (the time trial is over 36km).
‘We’ve got a puncture. But I’ll drive on,’ he adds, realising it’ll be quicker to continue than wait for me to get out and ‘help’ him to change it.
Soon afterwards a back tyre goes as well and we slip and slide our way through the rest of the trial, arriving back with seriously shredded rubber to a few ironic cheers.
Later I discover that, remarkably, even with the double blow, we qualified 15th for the start of the race, just eight and a half minutes behind the leader.

During my time in Tarkastad I notice two things in particular. One is the number of genuinely friendly people who ask if I am/was scared and two, the number of people who say; ‘I drove with Greg once…’

There is a real interest among locals as to why I am doing this and what the experience is like, but I am more concerned by those people who leave the word ‘once’ hanging in the air when they say they drove with Harvey. Why once? Does no-one go again? And why do they smile when they wish me good luck?

Maybe it’s because doing up to 180km/h on dirt tracks with no windscreen is a seriously exhilarating, seriously-worth-smiling-about experience. For that is the speed we were apparently doing at times. That, and the other extreme of creeping along as slowly as is necessary to avoid slipping off rocky paths and over the edge into some nasty looking drops.

The only time we touch tar is to cross a road, points at which marshalls and spectators wave us across safely while performing a variety of finger gestures to let us know how we are doing.

It’s like being trapped in a PlayStation game that you can’t turn off. And the other guy has got the controls.
Greg Harvey has been racing since he was 16, but got into this type of racing in 1990 when he bought a rolled Nissan bakkie at a police auction. ‘I just patched it up and decided to have some fun,’ he says.

Three years later the fun had turned serious and Harvey flew to America to import his first car. ‘I raced in all the nationals from ’94 to the end of last year.’

Which is not a cheap thing to do, it has to be said. A new Jimco, the type of car Harvey races, costs around R1,2 million. A back tyre, of which you need many, is R2,500, while a rim is about R5,000. I remember these figures because my lack of tyre-changing speed led to us buggering up two perfectly good tyres and rims in the trial. Ahem.

Overall, Harvey estimates that it costs about R120,000 a year to race competitively. ‘Travel is the expensive part,’ he says. ‘Costs of getting to the venue, accommodation and food, is not just for yourself. There is the co-driver, the pit crew; you need about five, sometimes more.’

Harvey then launches into the pros and cons of a manual/automatic gearbox, a subject close to his heart, because ‘after switching to a manual I won my first championship.’

It’s obviously a favourite theme as hours later I hear him telling another racer in the bar: ‘You have to change to a manual; you’ll never win that championship until you get rid of that automatic.’

As we line up for the start of the race I am comforted to see that it is a manual gearstick by my right knee, although how Harvey sees it in the first few kays, let alone the road ahead, is a mystery thanks to the dust kicked up by the 14 vehicles that start ahead of us.
Early on I miss a left and we overshoot into the driveway of a house, and are forced to turn just metres from the front door. One of the staff, who is cleaning the pool, looks up in bemusement. I resist the urge to wave.

Despite this hiccup we make steady progress through the field, passing other vehicles with regularity. The finger-waving spectators are getting increasing excited as they require fewer fingers to tell us our position. Harvey is back.

As we come up behind each vehicle, my job is to press the horn so they’ll (hopefully) move out of the way. The first time I send down a couple of polite ‘beeps’ and nothing happens, so Harvey tells me down the radio, ‘Right, when I say so, just sit on that hooter.’ He moves to within millimetres of the bumper of the bakkie in front, I do my horn job and they move out of the way. Nice.

On the couple of occasions when the vehicle in front won’t budge, Harvey gives them a not-too-gentle nudge in the back while apologising to me for his language. Being linked to someone by radio for the duration of such a physically demanding event is the closest you’ll ever get to thinking what they think. Every cough, splutter, and ‘fuck off out the way’ is there. And if breathing expresses emotion then Harvey is breathing pure determination.

We carve our way though the field, moving up to fourth overall and second in Special Vehicles.

My job is simple enough: shout left or right when I see an orange marker, press the horn hard, and pass Harvey rags when mud spins off the wheels and sprays his visor.

The pink plastic bracelet I am required wear (like the one they give you in hospital as you are wheeled in surgery) is a reminder of the potential dangers, as are our blood types painted onto the sides of the vehicle.

But quite frankly, peeing in my pants has been top of my agenda for quite some time. Let’s just say ‘going’ in a moving vehicle – even if you want to – is not as easy as you’d think.

I might not be the best co-driver in the world but I now hold the record for running from the posts to the toilet at Tarkastad Rugby Club.

Bridget Jones, the Montblanc diaries

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GQ (South Africa) September 2001

It’s in the final scene of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Where the smokin’, drinkin’, swearin’ real-life heroine finally gets together with the stuffy and traditional Mark Darcy. It’s cold and she’s standing there in the snow in her skimpy ‘I want sex’ tiger-print knickers. He’s all suited up and looking a bit bemused after just coming out of a shop. So there they are, deciding whether to lock tongues, and he hands her a present – a Montblanc diary.

Now you won’t have been too interested in this while watching the film because it was near the end and you’ll have been waiting for the kissing bit, but the gift was symbolic not only for the movie but also for what is happening at Montblanc itself.In the movie it’s the token which brings together two very different characters (and opens the door to a sequel).In Montblanc’s Hamburg HQ (no, it’s not a Swiss company) the 96-year-old makers of quality pens also looking to combine the qualities of tradition (Mark Darcy) with a modern twist of fun (that’ll be Bridget) as it evolves into a fully fledged luxury goods company.

As CEO Norbert Platt says, ‘We have run a tight ship in recent years in making this brand a bear in terms of its power and respect. I think now we can let the bear dance a bit.’And the latest step to making this bear shake his thing is the launch of the men’s fragrance Presence, which arrived in South Africa in July (it was the  best selling male fragrance in Europe in June). The fragrance is significant because the brand is taking a step outside the boardroom, and moving along from pens, paper, breifcases and cufflinks. It may not be the Full Bridget just yet but at least Darcy is starting tap his feet to the music.So have they succeeded?

Well, the fragrance is masculine, powerful and elegant (in line with existing characteristics) but it also adds a spark of sex. Just take a look at the woman featured in the adverts…The product is also significant because it is a rare licence agreement (with Cosmopolitan Cosmetics). In general Montblanc makes its own products because as Platt says ‘It is truth towards your brand. The customer complains and some other brands simply say “we do not make it”’.

Despite agreeing that the fragrance is a big move Platt still believes it is firmly a Montblanc product because of the message it sends out.‘We argued about the name. The licensee wanted to call it Mont Blanc Homme but what does it stand for? We needed a name that stands for what our customer wants to be. And people want to come into a room and have an aura. Which is why we called it Presence. It’s what the brand represents.’

So can the brand become more important than the product then?‘Yes. It is the carrier of the message and the carrier of a value system.’It’s something Naomi Klein’s recognises in her book No Logo (Flamingo) ‘The effect…of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make the brand the star. And why shouldn’t it be? If brands are not products but ideas, attitudes, values and expriences, why can’t they be the culture too?’

It’s fair to say Montblanc has become a part of our culture? After years of producing top-notch pens who doesn’t associate them with intelligence, learning and self-expression? Pick up one of their pens or pencils and, you too my boy can be all these things.

Platt, of course, knows more than anyone that the famous white star which has been the company’s symbol from (almost) the beginning, offers more than just a way to put ink onto a piece of paper, however, smooth and comfortable the action may be. ‘Why do customers buy the key product? Not for functional reasons. You can buy a Bic for a couple of rands and still draw lines. It’s for expression – love, appreciation, gratitude, fidelity, power.’

Platt joined Montblanc in 1987 after 15 years with Rollei in both Singapore and Germany and was at the head as the company forged ahead with diversification. First it was with ‘safe’ associated products like paper and diaries, but watches, cufflinks and wallets followed, even more fashion-led products such as sunglasses and women’s bags.So is fragrance the first step into the fashion world? After all, it’s common knowledge that fragrance is the financial cornerstone of many a fashion label so why not the launch pad of a new one?

Apparently these are not the plans in Platt’s management generation.‘We would not become an extremely fashionable couture label. We would not get into fashion in the next five, not even ten years. We could do classic, stylish masculine lines, but not female. Of course we have had requests for licences. We could do that tomorrow. I don’t rule out making a few ties but the pillar of our communication is hard goods.’

Anyway, to a degree Montblanc are already in the fashion world through their accessories, and recent growth – leather goods were up 50 per cent last year and watches 40 per cent, albeit off a small base – show they are not afraid to encroach into other areas aggressively. But the steady careful approach built up over nearly a century appears to still be the cornerstone.‘We are the Lion King in our jungle,’ Platt says, ‘but when you move outside of your part of the jungle you have to be careful because there are other animals.’So not scraps between Montblanc and the king’s of the fashion jungle to look forward to then.

But there is one product that reveals Platt is serious about putting a smile onto that famous whitestar. It’s a 5.5 x 4.5cm, leather folder (R380) to hold those precious Post-It notes you carry around.Now all we need to do is wait for Bridget Jones II: the Montblanc Diary.

Big toys

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Sunday Life, 1997

When it comes to toys for boys, Michael Beachy Head’s got the best in the neighbourhood. He’s bought 10 fighter jets: for tourism, for profit and for acrobatic fun.

You’ll black out and puke,’ Michael Beachy Head warns me. ‘But don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal, you’ll come round.’ Beachy Head is one of only three civilians in South Africa licensed to fly fighter jets. He’s explaining what will happen if I accept his offer to come up with him in his Buccaneer S2B when he’s performing acrobatics. ‘When you puke make sure it’s inside the flying suit and not in the plane,’ he adds. Then he reconsiders. ‘Maybe we should fly straight on your first flight up.’ Maybe he’s right.

He waves his hands about in intricate patterns, twisting and turning them to reveal the manoeuvres he has planned for a future display. I’m convinced. I’ll be watching from the ground, thank you.

Beachy Head is owner of Classic Jets – based at Cape Town International Airport – which takes part in airshows and displays around the country. His grand plan is to establish South Africa on the lucrative international airshow circuit.

The UK and US currently dominate the industry, with the UK specialising in World War II aircraft such as Spitfires and Mustangs and the US concentrating on the home-built market and vintage propeller-driven aircraft. The heavy-duty jets in which Classic Jets specialises could provide South Africa’s own niche. The answer will come in March/April next year – the date of the first Cape Town international air festival. Beachy Head is convinced the jets will attract large numbers of people from around the world.

‘I want to make South Africa the world centre for this type of aeroplane,’ he says. ‘They don’t fly anywhere else in the world. If you consider we got 27 000 people here for the rugby World Cup, I reckon we can do that every year. I don’t think the South African public has woken up to what a huge industry this is overseas. This a four billion dollar industry in Europe. That’s the gates, the rides and all the associated activities.’

At present Classic Jets is building up its fleet so that Cape Town can comfortably fly in formation with international airshows such as Farnborough, England, and Oshkosh, US, which attracts three-million visitors – including 250 000 foreigners – during its four-day show.

Three heavy-metal jets are currently at the airport. Another seven are being refurbished in the UK, the main source of ‘second-hand’ jets for Beachy Head. Securing the planes is not an easy task – it’s not as if they feature regularly in the classifieds. ‘Old jet, was used in bombing raids, no longer needed. One careful owner. Offers invited.’

‘In this arena everyone else knows what everyone else is doing out there, so if something happens in Australia I know about it,’ says Beachy Head. ‘Equally, if anything happens to this Buccaneer,’ chief engineer Terry Cook adds, ‘they’ll know about it in England.’ Beachy Head is also on the ‘hit list’ of the Ministry of Defence in the UK, which means he is contacted when an aircraft becomes available for sale. Assuming he’s interested, the next step is to ensure that the jet can be refurbished to flying standard. ‘The capital cost of the aeroplane is actually irrelevant,’ he says. ‘It’s only worth something if it flies and has a full support kit and all the documents. In its base state a plane’s worthless, just scrap metal. So they go from zero to priceless.’

Getting a priceless jet home involves a long hop; these planes may be fast but they also burn fuel at a rate of about two and a half tonnes per hour. When the Hunter T8 was flown out from England there were eight legs: to Genoa, Italy; Iráklion, Crete; Luxor, Egypt; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Nairobi, Kenya; Lilongwe, Malawi; Pretoria; Cape Town. Many authorities can’t believe these jets are civilian planes – Tanzania, for instance, refused the Hunter air space – but a strong link with British Aerospace generally helps smooth the path.

Okay, let’s imagine the international airshow is a big success. Mr and Mrs Wealthy Tourist have already visited Cape Town to see these monsters in action and they’ve got the simulator on their computer at home. They might come back for a bit of the same each year: fast planes and slow beaches, wild Kruger Park and calm Table Mountain. Then again they might want to get up there with the action. This is where the big money-spinner comes in for Classic Jets. Please fasten your seat belts for the ultimate joy ride (puke and blackouts optional). Would it be fun? Yes. Would it be exhilarating? Yes. Would it be expensive? US$20 000 (R91 000) worth of yes.

For that money Mr or Mrs Wealthy Tourist would get an hour’s familiarisation in a Hunter, an hour in a Lightning, and half an hour’s air-combat manoeuvring in which two jets ‘fight’ each other. If you don’t get your dollars’ worth you’ll certainly go the full distance. The 440 kilometres from Cape Town to George takes all of 19 minutes in a Lightning and the trip to Arniston (two hours’ drive) can be covered in six minutes. Getting kitted up takes longer than the flight itself. Astonishingly, the great white hunters are already queueing up: there is a list of more than 100 people from around the world ready to splash out US$20 000 on this lavish fly in the sky.

For those without that sort of money, this collection of jets still has many attractions. The Lightning Preservation Group in England, for instance, has about 17 000 members. There are only two English Electric Lightnings in the world that still fly. Classic Jets owns them both. ‘An operational museum,’ is how Beachy Head sees it.

And for all those people who think Beachy Head is simply keeping all the best toys for himself, well, he’s inviting the poor kids to play too. Have no doubts, this is a commercial venture, but it’s also fuelling something positive. At the weekends, a volunteer ground crew is gaining experience and gaining valuable training, as well as being close to something that would otherwise be out of reach. On a grander scale Classic Jets operates an RDP initiative: it plans to use commercial sponsorship money to train three commercial pilots in 1997 and one ground engineer is already undergoing training.

‘I knew we’d be generating revenue out of this and that it’s an avenue for raising sponsorship [Shell pays for the fuel], so why not channel some of those funds into doing something for greater aviation and underprivileged communities?’ Beachy Head says. Cape Flying Services in George is being used to screen potential pilots and will also train the successful applicants. ‘Obviously someone can’t go straight from high school on to a fast jet like this or there will be a big smoking hole in the ground, but there will be nothing to stop them progressing if they’ve got the aptitude.’

Beachy Head also believes a company that can generate so much enthusiasm and excitement because of the nature of its business needs involvement in the RDP for its own credibility. ‘It shows it’s not just a bunch of yuppies screaming around the sky in a fast aircraft. A lot of people get wrapped up in the fun side of aviation and like all the fast bits and the pilot’s swagger and all that, but there’s a lot of hard slog and hard graft. The amount of books I’ve got on that aeroplane would cover the floor of the average lounge and you’ve got to know all that stuff.’

But make no mistake, these jets turn heads. Even the ground staff at the airport – who, you’d imagine, would be pretty blasé about flying machines – stop and stare in anticipation when Beachy Head climbs into the cockpit of the Buccaneer – the only one in the world that is still flying. This time he’s teasing; the thunder of the engine is simply a routine test. They’ll have to wait for the next time, when he goes up and puts those elaborate hand displays into action. He climbs out smiling; he’s clearly enjoying himself. I ask him about a story that was in the news recently. It involved a display at a high school fête, a budgie that fell off its perch, an angry old lady and a noisy jet. ‘I just wanted to give the people watching a bit extra,’ Beachy Head laughs.

© Copyright Independent Newspapers 1997