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Focus on South Africa

Port Elizabeth: hub of activity

June 8, 2010
By Firdose Moonda

The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth is the first large scale football stadium to be built in the Eastern Cape. That may come as a surprise to some, especially since the province appears steeped in sporting history and is home to St George's Park, the oldest test cricket ground in the South Africa. In fact, the newly built football stadium and its vintage cricket counterpart tell a striking tale of the province's history, which saw the black majority population badly neglected by the Apartheid government before being given unrecognised independence as the homelands of Transkei and Ciskei and finally being incorporated back into the country in 1994.

Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
GettyImagesNelson Mandela Bay Stadium

• Soccernet Venue Guide

The reason it has taken 16 years before a world-class football venue was built in the Eastern Cape can be attributed to poverty, neglect for so-called "black" sports like football by the Apartheid government, and the fact that only one Premier League Soccer (PSL) team has represented the region at any given time in top flight football. So, when they were given a chance to have a first-class stadium, they went all out. The roof is, quite literally, as pretty as a petal. The white, flower-like design have seen the stadium earn the nickname, "the Sunflower" and with its structure perched on the North End Lake, the stadium is easily one of the most beautiful in the world.

It didn't have a beautiful beginning though. The stadium was originally drafted in as a Confederations Cup venue but a year before the tournament kicked off in June 2009, it was withdrawn. Organising Committee (OC) chairperson, Irvin Khoza explained the decision as being strongly connected to the very aspect which now makes the stadium so unique. "With the complex nature of the construction and erection of the roof of the stadium, it was decided that it would be too high a risk to keep the stadium in the Confederations Cup schedule."

Port Elizabeth was promptly removed from the list of Confed Cup host cities and worries about the city's readiness to host a big event intensified. Back in 2009, it was the only newly built stadium that was initially selected to be part of the tournament. The other venues (Bloemfontein, Rustenburg, Johannesburg and Pretoria) all had stadiums that were simply receiving upgrades, so some leniency was applied when assessing if it would be done in time for the World Cup.

However, the city and the stadium made an amazing comeback and ended up being the first completed venue for the World Cup. It was unveiled in June 2009, just a week before the Confed Cup started (although it would have needed to be ready in March for that particular tournament) and was a sight to behold. Apart from its majestic design, it came with some astounding facts and figures. Three thousand tons of steel were used, covering 55,000 square metres of ground, the steel roof weighs 2,000 tons and 3,000 temporary seats were put in for the World Cup. The 48,000 seater has 23 private suites, with 22 additional ones being brought in for the tournament.

It hosted its first match on June 16, 2009. Ironically, it was not a football match but a rugby encounter between the touring British and Irish Lions and the Southern Kings. The football came after that and to date, the stadium has been the venue of the Vodacom Challenge match between derby rivals Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, an international friendly between South Africa and Japan, a PSL match and a CAF Champions League match.

After a string of successful events, the doubt from the year before is gone and Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is considered just as ready as any other venue. In a wicked twist, it's one of the three stadiums that may not be packed to the rafters. Port Elizabeth (along with Nelspruit and Polokwane was identified as venue where tickets sales were particularly poor. That was in early May and a month later, there are still tickets available for the round of 16 match, the quarter-final and the third/fourth playoff at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. The category four tickets are all sold out, which can only indicate that foreigners are not lining up to visit Port Elizabeth.

While it is not as warm (climate wise) as Durban or as touristy as Cape Town, there's still plenty to do in PE. Sports lovers, even those who aren't football players, will find the city to be a hub of activity. Algoa Bay is famous for water sports such as scuba diving, surfing, windsurfing and kite boarding while those who prefer to stay dry can head to the Humewood golf course.

The biggest nature attraction is, fittingly, rather large. The Addo Elephant Park lies about 70 kilometres outside of Port Elizabeth and is the place over 450 elephant call home. All the big five animals can be seen here, and there's two marine creatures that have been added in for good measure. Great white sharks and whales can be spotted in addition to the lions, leopards, buffalos and rhinoceros, making this reserve the only one in the world with a big seven. The park is already popular with German, Dutch and British tourists and is well worth a visit.

Although drivers in this city are known for the leisurely pace of their driving, that shouldn't stop travellers from exploring the rest of the province. It is an area of two halves, with the interior and western side displaying the somewhat arid karoo and the east lush vegetation. It marks the starting point of the Garden Route, which continues to Cape Town on the west.

If one goes in the other direction, Grahamstown, a quaint university town, will be found. The National Arts Festival takes place annually during the June/July period at the university. This year, the occasion will have a distinct football flavour to it.

The Eastern Cape also offers a glimpse into the country's history. It's the province where former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki came from and has a strong political affiliation to the ruling African National Congress. It's also the area that gave birth to the man who many will credit with making the World Cup possible in South Africa - Danny Jordaan.

Matches to be played in PE:

• 12 June: South Korea vs Greece
• 15 June: Ivory Coast vs Portugal
• 18 June: Germany vs Serbia
• 21 June: Chile vs Switzerland
• 23 June: Slovenia vs England
• 26 June: Second Round: (Winner A vs Runner Up B)
• 2 July: Quarter-final
• 10 July: Third/Fourth place playoff.

• None of the teams are based in Port Elizabeth