Day 26 : Uruguay v Holland

World Cup Semi Final day.

We were woken up at 5. Kaz one of our Japanese photographers had seemingly gone missing. The taxi driver that I called last night had got in touch with Ito wondering where Kaz was. I got out of my Cape Town bed and called Joe sleeping in Johannesburg . I first spoke very slowly – I know too well what it is like to receive phone calls in the middle of a big sleep.

Joe went around to Kaz’s room, banged on the door, window and everything else I guess, but there was no answer. Ito frantically tried his mobile phone – It went straight to answerphone.

We kept our heads, but where was Kaz? We were worried for him but were hours from kidnap conspiracies! Twenty minutes later Kaz called Ito’s mobile, he was at the airport. It had transpired that the taxi driver had not arrived on time and Simon from the Big Brother house had kindly driven him and George to the airport.

Ito rang John the Taxi – I think that is the last time he will be using his services!

Ito and myself went back to sleep, unaware that what we had just lived through was probably the most exciting thing of the day!

We woke up on this FIFA World Cup Semi Final day at 0930. Ito had a shower, I got a small fix of Sky News. We walked the 20 walk to the stadium to get our passes. The queue was already long, however fortunately I got a spot behind the goal. Perfect!

LIke most days, if anyone looked at my images of this fine city then with the deep blue skies, cyan ocean and bright colours, one could be forgiven for assuming I was in paradise. WRONG! Paradise is I guess a warm place! The wind chill today must have been -2c.

Myself, George and Ito walked to the Waterfront in Cape Town. Ito went off to try and get some local wine. I left George on the outskirts of the CBD as he headed for his hotel. I tried once again to capture something magical with fans in one of the host cities. It just was not going to happen!

© MATTHEW ASHTON / AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

Was there a football match today? Cape Town as normal seemed crowded but there weren’t that many Uruguay fans. The Dutch, wearing their all orange outfits, were easy to spot, but the vibe of the city was certainly not that of say Milan when Chelsea or Manchester United are in town.

© MATTHEW ASHTON / AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

I bumped into Ito in the FIFA shop buying gifts for his office staff. Even by his standards he commented that they were expensive. Local bylaws for the World Cup prohibit anyone to sell football merchandising except for authorised outlets. Ito tries to pay with his funky Japanese American Express card but it is refused. Not because of bad credit, but because it is not the credit card of the official sponsor, VISA.

A quick pasts in our now ‘local’ was walked off as we headed back to the hotel. I fell alseep in front of the TV for 30 minutes whilst Ito communicated with his staff back in Tokyo.

At 1530h we were ready to go. I packed up my belongings and we returned back to the media centre. Another 4 hours of my life passed where I can not remember what I did. I know I copied more data to one of my hard drives, but apart from that I have no idea!

Eventually it was match time! We walked to the media centre down the segregated avenue with metal fences decked in FIFA logos to the media entrance. No fans in sight. With all the pre-tournament security scares perhaps this was the best option, but not for the hungry photographer.

© MATTHEW ASHTON / AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

I get to my positon only to find I have a huge battery in front of me as a back up for the LED advertising boards around the pitch. Then to make matters worse, the teams swapped ends. I so wanted to do Holland attack in the second half. It was not to be. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Chris sitting on the side. He hates sitting on the side. He spotted me, shaking his head. He was not enjoying himself.

The game started. It certainly did not feel like a World Cup Semi Final. Perhaps if I could listen to TalkSport or BBC radio then the commentators may have built the game up for me, but to say the atmosphere was dour is an understatement. I would go as far to say that there was more of an atmosphere at an exhibition match in the USA or the Far East.

The Dutch fans and indeed the small numbers of Uruguay fans did their best, but drowned out by vuvuzelas and certainly not helped by plastic fans there for the theatre of it the first 10-15 minutes was a very dull affair.

If I read any more from fans in the UK wanting vuvuzelas in English stadiums then I will gladly ram them down their throats! Horns and trumpets are for brass sections of soul bands. The human voice is the best instrument to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, not some plastic horn.

The out of the blue… GOAL!!!!! Giovanni Van Bronckhorst scoring a goal right down my lens and then celebrating first in front of me and then straight at Chris. Perhaps Chris now had changed his mind on the merits of sitting on the side.

Uruguay scored an equaliser down the other end. Again strange as it seems to the non-football photographer reading this, I had no concept on what was happening. It totally passed me by! It looked great on the giant stadium screens!

Half-time came and went with me firing off a dozen or so images from the first half.

As the game went on, my pictures got better. I was suddenly up to about 15 good, decent match action images. Something severely lacking in the Group stages. Holland – the Netherlands, whatever you want to call the great side in orange scored two more up the other end. Should the teams have not swapped ends you would have said that I would have got 3 goals down my end, but I was happy with my one. Again I’ll gladly swap with the karma vouchers in return for the winning goal down my end at the big event on Sunday.

Uruguay were good. This was the first time that I had photographed them in the tournament. But the referee ended their dreams of appearing in the game at Soccer City which resulted in the Dutch players quite rightly going nuts.

For once everything clicked into place, I was not blocked, not at the wrong end for the end of match celebrations and this did wonders to exorcise my inner demons that I was to blame for my poor performance at the start of the tournament. I still believe that you can only shoot what is in front of you.

That is why I do not work in a photo studio. I like the daily challenge of not being in control but doing everything I can to make myself in control.

© MATTHEW ASHTON / AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

The most emotive pictures came from the stands. All the Dutch fans in the stadium had congregated behind one of the goals. It is fair to say there are usually more Fulham away fans when they visit Manchester City, but the lack of numbers is no way to damped the joy and feeling that they had reached the FIFA World Cup Final.

The fans there were great. Really great. If any fans deserve to get to the final then it is the Dutch. If the tournament had of been staged in Europe then the Dutch would have travelled in far greater numbers and I guess the whole stadium would have been a sea of orange. I have no fear that those partying in Amsterdam were going wild.

With my head down in my computer for 2 hours editing my shoot, slowly one by one, the others came up pressuring me to pack up. They had early flights tomorrow, I had to get back to Johannesburg myself.

We stopped at Ito’s hotel to put more bags in the VW then headed off to the lovely apartment on the beach where the others had been staying. I had a conversation with a Dutch photographer about the Afrikans language. He told me it was old Dutch.

The guys staying over went to sleep as I packed the VW for the drive back.

This may have been the FIFA World Cup Semi Final, but for me certainly it was just another game. It really was. Just because of the enormity of the result, it did not make the day any better or any worse. Just like the Dutch had trained and trained and trained and their play resembled a well oiled machine, I have done so many games now, I am just running on auto pilot. It is just like going to an office every day or being an actor and churning out the same songs and dances everyday on stage. My reaction times are up to speed. Everything is familiar, I just need a good final to shoot on Sunday!

To me it is no surprise that the greatest volume of images I have got are from games involving the Dutch. When doing top class cricket, every stroke the likes of Michael Atherton and Brian Lara made with a cricket bat produced beautiful shapes and great pictures. Lesser quality county cricket is much harder to shoot. The same goes with football. Technically gifted players in Serie A are my favorite to shoot, however at times it is sometimes just too easy. Football League Two is far more challenging!

But the Dutch have been running into space more, working harder for each other and have seemed more emotive down my cameras.

This may sound strange but some photographers have lots of luck or indeed bad luck with certain teams and players. I never feel as though I am working as well when Wayne Rooney is playing for England compared to when Michael Owen played for England. Things just used to turn out more right when Owen was playing for me!

© MATTHEW ASHTON / AMA SPORTS PHOTO AGENCY

I am glad Wesley Sneijder is playing. I covered him lots playing for Inter Milan this year. I’m not religious or have any pre-match routines but I think the footballing Gods have provided me with Sneijder for my lucky charm this time around. Sneijder did me OK in this years UEFA Champions League Final – I hope the same happens at the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final.

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