Milton Keynes is a post war model town, in the Buckinghamshire countryside, surrounded by motorways with more parks than you find on the South Korean World Cup team and a million plus trees, NOT to be confused with how my Dublin friend Richie pronounces THREES !
It was a suprise choice city for the England 2018 World Cup bid last December, with a splendid stadium :STADIUM MK with 31,000 luxury seats plus the second tier of 10,000 more built but not yet furnished, and includes a 'built in' Doubletree by Hilton hotel as part of the stadium where the Black Stars of Ghana and the Carmine Red Latviya teams were staying. I like the style of the MK Dons Chairman Pete Winkelman, a pop music impresario who bubbles over with enthusiasm and always makes lots of sense when I hear him speak.
Ghana were the only African team to advance past the first round 4 years ago in Germany, and the first to qualify for 2010. Despite losing Michael Essien to injury they are again a contender. Their no-nonsense Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac has quite a task on his hand. His Black Stars face his native Serbia in June 13th in Pretoria then Australia 6 days later in Rustenburg and finally group favourites Germany at Soccer City in Johannesburg on June 23rd. QUITE A TOUGH TASK.
Small Baltic Latvia are coached by Aleksadrs Stakovs and were supposed to be cannon fodder for the Africans, but they provided stiff resistance. I explored downtown Milton Keynes. No Roman, Medieval, Victorian, Georgian sites to be seen, but a giant shopping city and nearby even an indoor parachute tower and more fun at XSCAPE. I dropped by the 3 phone store to ask about SIM cards for South Africa in a few days. I was met by KEVIN, a Jo'burg native who works there. We had a great chat and all I need to know about checking with VODACOM on arrival at JNB Airport.
'This is an all seater stadium' came over the loudspeaker time and again to no avail at the match. It was seething with colourful, loud, stomping Ghanaians with brilliant robes, headresses, green, yellow, red flags and banners,. Also lots of drums, horns, bugles, and more. This was NOT your usual fare in the lower divisions of the Football League.
Latvian League VIRSLIGA is a summer season and in the middle right now from April to November, so the opposition was skillful and in form. The Ghanaians are as fit and as strong as butchers dogs, small and sturdy and straight out of the traces llke greyhounds. At an average age of 24 they are probably the youngest squad at the Cup. FIFA and Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg was in the middle, and has slimmed quite a bit.
Only 9 goals in qualifying over Benin, Mali and Sudan they need to score much more starting next week to advance again. 31 minutes and Andre Ayew hit the bar, and 2 minutes later Asamoah Gyan was just wide. They were hard to contain. 41 minutes and Kwadwo Asamoah dribbled half the length of the field and his rocket of a shot was also close but not close enough.
Next to me in the press seats was Alfred, going crazy with passionate descriptions of the state of play for Hot Digital FM radio, live to Accra. He corralled me every few minutes to give my neutral view and at 88 minutes with a score of 0-0, I again told West Africa that a tie was inevitable, and as I spoke the stadium went wild as Quincy Owusu-Abeyie netted the winner. The field became a sea of African colour as the referee whistled for the end the next minute or so and there was the friendliest of pitch invasions. I was immediatly signed on as the radio stations OUR MAN IN AFRICA.
Out of the main stand, down the wide spiral staircase came this mass of African passion with their chants, singing, and their varied instruments and into the sunshine outside. Latviya turned out to be no pushovers, and their hundred or so fans joined in the singing, intertwined flags and bodies in the Spirit of the Beautiful Game. Lets hope the BIG PARTY starting next Friday in SOCCER CITY , South Africa v Mexico shows more of the same spirit, plus of course the curse of the VUVUZELAS. I can't wait and I am sure neither can the world.