JOHANNESBURG // Workers struggled yesterday to make the damaged Ellis Park pitch playable in time for today's Confederations Cup opener between hosts South Africa and Iraq. Rugby, normally played at the Johannesburg stadium, has left the field scarred and uneven around midfield and players expecting international-standard pitches at the tournament could be disappointed. Rugby has been played recently at the three other stadiums being used for the Confederations Cup, in Rustenburg, Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
With South Africa's two biggest sports competing for the same grounds, it often leaves bumpy pitches for football once the rough and tumble of rugby's big men stops. The touring British & Irish Lions played on the Johannesburg pitch just 10 days ago. At Ellis Park yesterday, workers stared at a hole four inches deep in the centre of the goalmouth. When the world's greatest footballers meet in South Africa for the World Cup next year, they will expect the pitches to be as smooth as a billiard table.
"Everybody understands the seriousness of the pitch quality for a Fifa competition," said Fifa's director of competition Jim Brown. "Rugby players are big guys and in a scrum they tend to do a little bit of damage to the turf," local tournament organiser Derek Blanckensee said. "A tremendous amount of work is being done to repair that damage," he added. The last rugby match at Ellis Park was played on June 3 and the pitch had also suffered from hosting a political rally of the ANC party.
"There is simply not enough time," said Brown. For next year, more time will be allotted, added Brown, to make sure all pitches are perfect and in stadiums built specially for the World Cup the pitches will all be new. * AP