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Travel guide to the 2010 World Cup

The United States is in. So are Brazil, England, Spain and 15 other nations. Yet with eight months to go before the 2010 World Cup, more tickets have been purchased by people from the U.S. (11.7 percent at last count) than from any other country except the host nation, South Africa (47.9 percent).

Why? It's a combination of factors: More Americans are used to making purchases over the Internet than citizens of other countries; the World Cup has become a legitimate big-time sporting event in America; the U.S. has fans of many national teams, not just the Stars & Stripes (my British neighbor here in Baltimore already has his tickets for England games); and the U.S. is, after all, the great bastion of capitalism -- and home to myriad ticket brokers hoping to make a killing on the world's most popular sporting event.

But let's assume there are actual U.S. soccer fans buying the majority of these World Cup tickets. They want to know: What's it going to be like in South Africa? Is it as dangerous there as some people have said? And what should I know before I leave for the tournament next year?

Let me try to help. I lived in Johannesburg for seven months recently while my wife worked there at a hospital in Soweto. I don't have all the answers, of course, but I can give you an idea of what it's like on the ground there.

First off, I think the 2010 World Cup will be a tremendous success for South Africa, despite the concerns over readiness that seem to plague any global sports extravaganza that doesn't take place in China or the U.S. I also think that if you're smart and exercise common sense, your trip to the World Cup should be memorable and free of incidents. My seven-month stay there certainly was, and I already miss the wonderful people (South Africans and ex-pats alike) whom I met.

Still, you'll need to be careful. The South African murder rate, while declining, is about eight times higher than in the U.S. One reason for the high crime rate is unemployment, which recently rose to 23.5 percent. What's more, about 20 percent of South African adults have HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS. South Africa has more HIV-infected people (approximately 5.7 million) than any other nation in the world.

In many parts of the country -- especially in Johannesburg, the World Cup nerve center -- there is a kind of fortress mentality that dominates daily life. Our apartment complex in Jo'burg's northern suburbs was like so many others: It was surrounded by a 10-foot-high security wall, which was topped by an eight-wire electric fence. A 24-hour security guard screened every person who entered the facility. In addition to a heavy front door with two locks, we had a second front-door gate made of steel bars, also known as "burglar bars."

In six months, we walked on the sidewalks outside our apartment exactly once (to go to a cricket game at the nearby stadium). It's too dangerous, we were told. The sad truth was that you almost never saw white people walking on residential sidewalks, even during the day, and those who did stood out.

There are certainly places in Jo'burg where you can feel comfortable. The shopping malls have plenty of security and some good restaurants. (Melrose Arch, an outdoor shopping/residential area, had the nicest gym I've ever belonged to.) The city parks are fine during the day; I played in a regular pick-up basketball game on Sundays at Zoo Lake. Several restaurant-and-bar districts are a blast. (Our favorite is Melville, which also has several good bed-and-breakfasts.) And the soccer stadiums themselves felt perfectly safe during the Confederations Cup in June.

(Cape Town, by the way, is a bit safer than Jo'burg -- and one of the world's best cities for restaurants, outdoor activities and nightlife. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco. We took several long-weekend trips to Cape Town and South Africa's glorious wine country, which is only an hour away by car.)

From a transportation perspective, World Cup 2010 won't be like Germany 2006, where you could ride high-speed trains between all the cities. The most common modes of transport in South Africa 2010 will be airplanes (Cape Town, for example, is nowhere near any other venue cities) and automobiles. So make sure you get your rental-car reservations in early, especially if you want an automatic transmission, and by all means ask for a GPS to come with it. One of our visiting American friends didn't take that advice, got lost, stopped his car on the side of a road at night in a rough part of Jo'burg, and was mugged at gunpoint. (Thankfully, he ended up being OK.)

Other car tips: Put anything remotely valuable (laptops, purses, etc.) in the trunk, since smash-and-grab robberies can (and do) happen at intersections. Cars travel on the left side of the road, and left turns on red lights are forbidden. Gas stations don't accept credit cards; only cash. (Credit cards are in common use everywhere else.) And while driving between cities after midnight is possible, it's a dicey proposition sometimes. I'd recommend finding accommodations in the same city where you saw your game that day.

The South African roads are pretty good, though the highways aren't always four-lane. (We got stuck behind some semis on the sometimes-two-lane highway between Jo'burg and Bloemfontein.) One definite positive: From Johannesburg, you are within driving distance of World Cup stadiums in Jo'burg (Soccer City and Ellis Park), Pretoria (one hour), Rustenburg (two hours), Bloemfontein (four hours), Nelspruit (five hours) and Polokwane (five hours). If you're based in Jo'burg, games in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town will require flights (unless you really like driving).

If you're planning a trip to the World Cup, there are three officially licensed World Cup tour operators in the U.S.: Great Atlantic Travel, Cartan Tours and Destination Southern Africa. Prices, as you might expect, will not be cheap through tour operators. If you do it on your own, here are some helpful things to know:

Flights: Plane tickets are now available for next June and July, so you're better off getting them sooner rather than later. Only two carriers fly non-stop from the U.S. to Johannesburg: Delta (from Atlanta) and South African Airways (from JFK in New York City and Dulles near Washington). From personal experience, I'd suggest Delta for a couple reasons. One, Delta is the only carrier that flies non-stop on the return flight. (South African stops in Dakar, Senegal, to refuel.) And two, my family's own experience on South African Airways has involved jewelry theft, lost bags and bad customer service. Whatever airline you use, I'd suggest using TSA-approved locks for your luggage.

You can also connect through several European airports, but that makes for a long, long trip.

World Cup tickets: FIFA is currently in the second of five ticket-selling phases. You can apply to buy tickets for individual games or team-specific games from FIFA, although team-specific tickets are no longer available for England, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands. Due to demand, FIFA says it is no longer possible within the current sales phase to buy tickets for games in Cape Town, Nelspruit and Pretoria. Also, individual tickets for the opening game, two semifinals and final are unavailable in the current phase.

If you're looking for tickets to games involving the U.S., tickets will be available through the U.S. Soccer Federation, which promises that the process will be easier than it was four years ago (when customer complaints were numerous). For this World Cup, member federations will receive 12 percent of the tickets for each first-round game in which they participate (as opposed to 8 percent in '06). What's more, FIFA will help U.S. Soccer coordinate the sales process, which does give priority to members of the U.S. Soccer Supporters Club. A list of frequently asked questions about World Cup tickets can be found here.

Of course, ticket brokers and scalpers will no doubt have tickets available for games as well.

Accommodations: You have different options here, including hotels, bed and breakfasts and renting houses and apartments from ordinary citizens. You might be surprised how many South Africans are willing to do that, actually. Through just one connection in Jo'burg, I visited a half-dozen houses and apartments that people are renting out during the World Cup. The quality of the accommodations varies greatly, though, and so do the prices. One landlord told me with a straight face that he wanted $1,000 a night for his two-person apartment. It was nice, but hardly that nice.

In the end, we signed on for a nice four-bedroom house in Jo'burg with a good security system (for the duration of the World Cup) and are paying slightly less than $100 per head per night for four people. If I was going as a fan, though, the first places I'd look for lodging in Jo'burg are the bed and breakfasts near Seventh Street in Melville. You'll thank me for recommending these.

If you're looking for hotels to stay in on the nights before and after your favorite team's games, you're best off making arrangements as soon as the World Cup draw takes place on Dec. 4.

Other Things to Do: You're going for the soccer, but that doesn't mean it's the only reason you're there. It'll be winter in South Africa during the World Cup, which cuts down on the beach pleasures of Cape Town or Durban, but there's plenty to do. If you go to wine country outside Cape Town, stay in Franschhoek, the cozy French-influenced town with great restaurants and B&Bs, and check out the wineries in nearby Stellenbosch. (Our favorites are Meerlust, Ernie Els and Warwick.)

The World Cup venue in Nelspruit is the gateway to Kruger National Park, one of Africa's better safari destinations. But if you're up for an even more memorable safari experience before or after the World Cup, take a three-hour flight from Jo'burg to Tanzania, hire a guide and check out the Serengeti. It's one of the coolest trips we've ever taken, and you can combine it with a trek up Kilimanjaro and/or a visit to the beach island of Zanzibar.

If you want to see some cool non-soccer stuff in Johannesburg, I'd recommend a few places, including the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson Museum and Soweto's famous Wandies restaurant (featuring first-rate local food and a framed picture of the owner with Ruud Gullit). In fact, you can take an organized tour of Soweto and see all three as part of it.

So, yes, when you go to South Africa, be careful, be smart, be prepared. Start your planning now. And chances are that your time in the Rainbow Nation will be a memorable one.

• A sad postscript: Last week, I learned that one of my friends in Johannesburg, Sandra Magalhaes, was shot and killed in an attempted car-jacking. Sandi was an extraordinarily kind woman and an accomplished photographer -- she took the author photo for my book -- and my thoughts are with her family, especially her son, Brandon.

Grant Wahl's New York Times Best Seller, The Beckham Experiment, is in bookstores everywhere. You can order it here. You can follow him on Twitter.

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