In a new blog on www.football-league.co.uk, Stuart Roach shares his first experiences of South Africa, focussing primarily on The Football League players on duty in this summer's World Cup:
The sign that hung from an office block in downtown Sandton yesterday could so easily have been put there as a grand welcome to The Football League's player representatives at this World Cup.
As tens of thousands of South African fans lined the streets to welcome the Bafana Bafana team that carries the perhaps overly optimistic hopes of a nation, statements of defiance were everywhere.
"United we shall stand" read one; "Aweh Mzansi Aweh" (go people go) cried another. But it was the belligerent "45 million of us, 11 of them" which caught my Football League eye.
The World Cup has had a unifying affect on the people of this country - finally the Rainbow Nation is united in a single sport - and the weight of support behind their team could offer a significant psychological boost as South Africa aim to avoid becoming the first host nation to fail to progress beyond the group stages.
South Korea enjoyed a similar groundswell of unconditional support in 2002 and when progress from the groups would have sufficed they surpassed all expectations by reaching the semi-finals. It will take more than passionate support to elevate a team of questionable ability to the knockout stages this time around, but if Carlos Alberto Parreira's squad are feeling humbled by the overwhelming home support then the players who plied their trade in The Football League last season must feel a little lonely in comparison.
Actually, there are 11 of them, but Marek Cech, Jay De Merit, Rory Fallon, Adam Federici, Jonas Gutierrez, Gonzalo Jara, Brad Jones, Chris Killen, Robert Koren, Tommy Smith and Chris Wood can at least count on the support of not only their own nation's fans but also the interested eyes of an army of Football League fans from all 72 League clubs. Millions of us watching only 11 of them.
First up for the Football League representative group is USA defender De Merit, who faces the not insignificant task of keeping Wayne Rooney quiet as England take their World Cup bow at Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium on Saturday. De Merit, who helped steer Watford out of relegation trouble in the Championship last season, is far from fazed by coming up against England's talisman despite acknowledging him as one of the world's finest talents.
''I have played against him three or four times with Watford, certainly twice in the Premier League, once in an FA Cup semi-final, and there is no argument that he is in the top three forwards in the world. He has proved that this season with his scoring record," De Merit said.
''He is becoming a 100 per cent complete player. Rooney doesn't just test you as far as your soccer skills go. He tests you mentally, he tests your reserve, he tests your physical ability as well. He is the ultimate competitor.''
De Merit was talking from the dairy farm opposite USA's well-guarded base camp in a quiet suburb of Johannesburg. The farm has become the US media centre, where chickens roam as freely as the accredited journalists and the heavy whiff of cattle hangs in the air - a curious setting for those with a good nose for a story.
And the big defender wasn't giving much away this week when he suggested that his side still has a lot to prove, despite reaching the final of the Confederations Cup here last year.
"Being Americans, we always have something to prove as far as soccer is concerned. We understand who we are and we understand that there's still a long road. But we can also see people starting to care. We need to continue to have success as a program and as individuals, because in a media-driven place like America it's success that's going to continue us along that right road."
Whether or not USA secure a positive result against England on Saturday De Merit will have high hopes of reaching the knockout stages, but so too will West Bromwich Albion midfielder Robert Koren, whose Slovenia side are in the same qualifying group.
Koren will be hoping for a starting place when Slovenia kick-off their campaign against Algeria on Sunday and he is set to come face-to-face with De Merit in Johannesburg on June 18, a game that could ensure at least one of them makes it through the group stages.
"Our aim is definitely to finish first or second in our group," Koren said recently, adding: "We are aware that making it to South Africa is a big achievement, but I believe that we can surprise people."
Despite being one of the smallest nations at the tournament and among the bookies' rank outsiders, Koren could be right, especially when you consider that Slovenia knocked Russia out of the play-offs to book their place in South Africa.
Goalkeepers Jones (Middlesbrough) and Federici (Reading) will also be hopeful of progressing beyond the group stages, even though both are likely to have to accept a back seat to Aussie first-choice Mark Schwarzer when the Socceroos kick off their campaign against Germany in Durban on Sunday.
Newcastle United defender Gutierrez is another of the Football League stars whose nations get up and running this weekend as Argentina face South Korea in an awkward looking group that also includes Greece and Nigeria, respectively ranked 12th and 20th in the world.
"I will draw on my experiences at Newcastle this season, where everything we have achieved has been built on a tremendous team spirit and work ethic," Gutierrez told The Times. And with superstar playmakers Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez driving a formidable Argentine challenge, those qualities could yet see Gutierrez adding to his Football League championship success with another winners' medal this summer.
Stay tuned to www.football-league.co.uk throughout the World Cup for Stuart's blogs, direct from his base in Johannesburg.