Cup venues range from rags to riches
JOHANNESBURG -- The biggest question heading into this year's World Cup in South Africa is whether David Beckham's injury means we won't see Posh Spice at the tournament. The second-biggest question: Will the venues be ready for June 11?
We went to South Africa to find the answers. Here is your (almost) comprehensive report card of World Cup venues. Grades are as of March 19. Click the links to watch home video of the stadiums.
SOCCER CITY (Johannesburg)
Outside: Not ready. Many of the windows in the facade remain without glass. Or maybe that's part of the design. Construction continues on gates, paving, interlocking brick, access roads, landscaping, etc. It could get pretty muddy in what will be the winter down here. But the stadium itself is as impressive from up close as it is from afar. It is an iconic sight.
Inside: Almost completed and very, um, orange. Big. Everything is shiny and new.
Pressure point: It will be nice when it's finished, which it needs to be soon-ish -- the warm-up friendly match is being held there June 8.
Find it by: Aside from the obvious -- the earthen-colored, wavy pottery visible for miles around -- look for the towering slag heaps from regional mining that border the stadium on three sides. The intention is to conceal the heaps with grass and trees to make them a more palatable visual. Most TV camera angles will show the stadium with the Joburg skyline in the background.
You should know: The black lines on the orange seats and on the exterior walls of the facade point to the nine other venues at the World Cup. But because nine is bad luck to some South Africans, a 10th line points to Olympic Stadium in Berlin, home of the 2006 World Cup final. It's the site of the first game, the final and six games in between. The International Broadcast Centre is across the train tracks.
Overall grade: B, with potential
ELLIS PARK (Johannesburg)
Outside: A sprawling, historic stadium located in a fairly ragged part of the city.
Inside: Some might say it has character. Others might say it needs repairs. But, c'mon, this is where "Invictus" was filmed.
Pressure point: The pitch looks good, but its durability might be an issue. The place has seen a lot of feet. Security could be a concern here, as well.
Find it by: Listening for the sirens and commuter trains.
You should know: It's the site of U.S.-Slovenia. Also playing here are titans Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Italy (but not all at once).
Overall grade: C
LOFTUS VERSFELD (Tshwane/Pretoria)
Outside: Yikes. This facility has been around so long, it must have been Dr. Livingstone's favorite stadium.
Inside: Yikes plus two. Narrow hallways, tight staircases, rugged brick walls, no parking. If it's Fenway Park, it's charming. For the World Cup, not so much.
Pressure point: The grass looked awful even though it was the end of the South African summer. Sure, the pitch will be reseeded with rye grass, but three rugby games (the stadium is home to the Springboks) will be played in the five weeks between reseeding and the World Cup. And them boys ain't exactly easy on the vegetation.
Find it by: Look for the tall light standards. What can I tell you? It's the big old soccer pitch in Pretoria.
You should know: Traffic going to this stadium will be abysmal, seeing as how some of the access roads will be closed to provide parking for TV trucks. This is the site of U.S.-Algeria on June 23, the third game for both teams. The nearby American-diner style restaurant is a pretty decent choice for mainstream eats.
Overall grade: D
ROYAL BAFOKENG STADIUM (Rustenburg)
Outside: Ah, that's better. Very nice, very artsy, very cosmetically appealing. The main grandstand, which is new, has enough steel support rope to string a tightrope from Cape Town to Nelspruit.
Inside: Nothing fancy, but all new and almost ready. St. Hoffa, the patron saint of concrete, would be pleased. The running track might be covered for the tournament.
Pressure point: It's quite a haul from Joburg, and there is very little in the way of accommodations in the immediate area. Also, the main feeder road from Joburg is two lanes, so traffic will be fun, in an L.A. kind of way. Being relatively close to Sun City could alleviate some of this pressure.
Find it by: Go with the flow -- of miles and miles of cars, that is. Don't take the light-rail line because it won't be ready by then.
You should know: Rustenburg is the site of U.S.-England. This stadium holds 42,000. Why would you put the game between arguably the richest two nations in the tournament (the fans who will be most able to afford to attend, in other words) in the smallest stadium? Good question. Wish I had asked somebody.
Overall grade: B-plus
FREE STATE STADIUM (Bloemfontein)
Outside: This one is simple but pleasant. Not as dazzling from the outside as some of the others, but definitely an improvement over the elderly bunch.
Inside: The pitch is in very good shape, and all the seats are new.
Pressure point: Not much. This place is pretty close to being ready. Parking will not be an issue.
Find it by: Kind of looks like the old Yankee Stadium from a certain angle if you've had enough Castle Lager.
You should know: This was the site of the U.S. upset over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. The U.S. would play here if it finishes second in its group. Potential foe: Germany. Capacity is 48,000, a bit on the small side for a match that might pit two of the richest countries blah, blah, blah. Also, the media areas are very posh. So there.
Overall grade: B-plus
CAPE TOWN STADIUM (don't call it Green Point)
Outside: This is a beautiful stadium in a beautiful part of a beautiful city. Smells like the seashore.
Inside: Brand-spanking new. Almost ready to be used. The grass looks painted on. Smells like a new car.
Pressure point: Can't think of one off the top of my head. People won't want to leave.
Find it by: Look for the gleaming gem by the seaside, in front of Table Mountain, in the postcards.
You should know: The winter winds will be extreme. The cold might actually be, you know, cold. But what do you expect? It's at the confluence of two oceans, Magellan. This will be the site of England-Algeria, one quarterfinal and one semifinal.
Overall grade: A
NELSON MANDELA BAY STADIUM (Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth)
Outside: The clamshell-roofed stadium is set on a sunny shore of the Indian Ocean, but the struggling industrial town has mostly rough edges, with abandoned warehouses lining the highway.
Inside: Very shiny, very nice. Lots of hardwood, stone flooring, black-framed glass. Simple, functional, clean. Pretty close to being ready.
Pressure point: Port Elizabeth is known as the Windy City, so hang on to your hat with one hand while you're hanging onto your wallet with the other.
Find it by: Letting the wind take you. Ha-ha! Actually, it's one of the few new structures in town, so you can't miss it from the highway. This will be the epicenter of the tournament's posh/poverty paradox.
You should know: Site of Slovenia-England. The stadium has a capacity of 46,000.
Overall grade: B-plus
MOSES MABHIDA STADIUM (Durban)
Outside: This place is of the highest order, and it gleams like a diamond in the darkness of this otherwise grim industrial oceanside town. The massive, low-angle arch over the middle will be recognizable alongside Soccer City's pottery thingy as one of the visual trademarks of the tournament.
Inside: Fantastic. The entrance lobby seems more museum than stadium, complete with massive atrium, stylish African art on the walls and gleaming stone floors. The seats -- some seaside blue, some white and some sand-colored -- draw idyllic visions of tranquil dreaminess. Er, ahem … this place will look really good on TV. It has been in use since October, so it works, too.
Pressure point: You can actually swing from the arch, for a price. Seriously. (Not during matches, though.) Is it a venue or a carnival ride? You decide. But a quibble, really. If anything, it shows you the South Africans have a good sense of humor.
Find it by: Looking for the stadium with the Denver airport sails and the squat St. Louis arch splitting the middle. Did I mention the arch? Surprisingly, it's made of concrete.
You should know: If these venues were trading cards, this would be Honus Wagner. This stadium was built for the World Cup, of course, but also with the Olympics and Commonwealth Games in mind. Weather issues might force the facility to place a transparent covering over the gap behind the south grandstand -- which could be a shame, as that gap provides a glorious glimpse of the city. Site of Brazil-Portugal on June 23.
Overall grade: A
MBOMBELA STADIUM (Nelspruit)
Outside: Nice. The stands are held up by massive red giraffes.
Inside: Zebra seats? Really. Safari, so good.
You should know: I didn't visit this one, but it looked nice in the photos.
PETER MOKABA STADIUM (Polokwane)
Outside: Slick. Interesting combination of brown and concrete. The ramp spiral tower is attached to the stands and looks broken.
Inside: The seats look really cool with those earthy, wavy designs evoking the distant mountains. Wait, where's the grass for the pitch? Is this sand soccer?
You should know: I didn't visit this one, either.
Paul Grant is a deputy editor at ESPN.com.