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Tuesday, November 10, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: February 24, 10:22 PM UK
Free State Stadium

Nick Bidwell

Name Free State Stadium
Year completed 1952
Cost US$33,000,000 (upgrade)
Capacity 45,000
Home to Central Cheetahs, Free State Cheetahs (rugby), Bloemfontein Celtic (football)
Trivia Building work was dogged by a series of strikes, the longest of which lasted a fortnight. It is also known as Vodacom Park


The 45,000 capacity ground, which in total will host five group games and one second-round tie, will be rocking in June. The crackling atmosphere will be fuelled by the supporters of local side Bloemfontein Celtic, who sport distinctive green-and-white hooped shirts, just like their namesakes in Scotland.

Built back in 1952 and a stage for games at the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the African Cup of Nations the following year, the stadium was the subject of a US$33 million renovation programme for 2010 that raised the capacity by 7,000. It included an extra tier of seats for the main (West) stand, new turnstiles and scoreboard, CCTV and upgraded floodlights and sound system. The ground forms part of an excellent multi-sport complex that additionally offers top-class cricket, tennis, athletics, swimming and hockey facilities.

The football fans are considered the most passionate in the entire country and they showed as much at the 2009 Confederations Cup, jumping up and down, chanting relentlessly and blowing up a storm with their vuvuzela, the controversial long plastic horns so integral to the matchday experience in the republic.


Where to go, what to see

It makes absolute sense that hosts South Africa have pencilled in Bloemfontein as the stage for their third opening phase game. The emphasis on sport is in the local DNA. After all, this is the town that produced the great South African pace bowler Allan Donald and the middle-distance runner Zola Budd.

Close to the stadium are two spots to wile away those non-football hours: the city zoo in King's Park - entrance on Henry Street - and the lakeside Loch Logan Waterfront, a Free State take on the Cape Town entertainment hub, boasting restaurants, bars, boutiques and cinema screens. Only three blocks west of the City Hall, it's as convenient as you can get.

Besides catching a cab to the stadium - P Taxis is very reliable (Tel: 051 522 3399) - the best mode of transportation will be the extensive park-and-ride connections put in place for the tournament. Drive your hire car to the Northridge Mall by Eufees Road, the University of Free State site to the west, the old Bloemfontein racecourse or the Windmill Casino between the N1 motorway and downtown.

Park-and-walk points will be located in various spots, notably the Fontein Street Municipal Garage, St Andrew School, HTS Louis Botha School and Dr Viljoen School. The stadium is close enough to the city centre to comfortably reach on foot but remember to wrap up warm on match days as at night as the mercury levels can dip alarmingly close to zero.

Known as the 'City of Roses' because of the innumerable rose bushes dotted around, Bloemfontein is not one of the easiest cities in SA to navigate on foot, even though most of its attractions are close to the central Hoffman Square, which is the provisional site of the FIFA Fan Fest. You may well get lost in the maze because a logical grid system layout means it is easy to lose your bearings.

On the plus side, it is relatively safe and is loaded with historical buildings such as the National Museum, Court of Appeal, Fourth Raadsaal (the old Orange Free State parliament) and City Hall. Another must-do is a trek up Naval Hill, the site of British gun emplacement during the Boer War. Situated to the north of the city centre, it offers stunning views and is also home to the Franklin Game Reserve, open 8am to 5pm with free admission.

The city airport, revamped for the World Cup, is about 10km east of town on the N8. Arrange to pick up a hire car from here or pre-order a minibus taxi (Tel: 072 630 6210). Long-distance buses run from the tourist centre on Park Street to major cities such as Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. The railway station is to the east of King's Park on Harvey Road.

'Bloem' is often described by non-residents as staid, but that's not a fair description. It may not have the urban sprawl and hustle and bustle of its domestic big brothers in Johannesburg and Cape Town but, as a university town, it can pulsate at night with the best, especially on Second Avenue in the suburb of Westdene to the north of the city centre as well as the nearby Kellner and Zastron streets and Nelson Mandela Avenue.

Mystic Boer on Kellner Street is a heaving bar and music venue that does a fine line in pub grub, while along the same lines is the lively Barba's Cafe (Second Avenue). Its speciality is Greek feasts and, though no plates get smashed here, that does not make the mezes and kleftiko any less authentic. Other good places to catch a live act are Kicks in Ferreira Road and Roxy Rhythm Bar on Ella Street.

Carnivores should be in their element here. Steaks are invariably both juicy and big enough to require planning permission and there's no better place to sample them than at Beef Baron on Second Avenue. The resolutely trendy Seven on Kellner serves up mouth-watering Middle Eastern dishes, while Fishpaste (President Steyn Street, Westdene) does marine nibbles with a twist. The Mimosa Mall on Kellner Street is awash with coffee shops, chain restaurants and all the usual retail outlets.

For a meal to remember, make for De Oude Kraal, a beautifully-restored old farmhouse 35km south of the city on the N1. Diners flock here for their flagship six-course dinner and it will certainly not disappoint.

Talking out-of-town, there is an incredibly scenic drive on the road that links Fouriesburg with Clarens in the Eastern Free State, while the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, around 300km north-east of Bloemfontein on the R712, just has to be savoured. It's not particularly famous for its wildlife - though the zebra and wildebeest may float your boat - but more for the exceptional beauty of the sandstone landscape, and the nightly sunsets have to be seen to be believed. It is open daily, with admission costing R60 per person per day.

Bloemfontein has plenty of well-run guest houses in the enclaves of Westdene and neighbouring Waverley, but be warned - few of the Free State population speak English as their first language. Sotho is by far the dominant tongue (64 per cent), followed by Afrikaans (12 per cent).

A trip to Bloemfontein is an experience in itself, but it will be even more memorable when the World Cup party is in full swing.


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