KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa (AFP) - As the sun set over the savannah at Kruger National Park, a football fan unfurled a banner from the side of an open-air safari truck.
The guided tour was about to set out in search of Africa's "big five" -- lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and Cape buffalo -- and the Argentina fan seized the moment to convey a message to the world, or any animals that might be watching.
"Whatever happens, no matter what," the banner said. It showed a picture of Argentina coach Diego Maradona lifting the World Cup -- a dream soon killed by Germany as they sank their teeth into the Albicelestes in their quarter-final Saturday.
Kruger, one of the top safari destinations in Africa, has received massive herds of football fans as South Africa hosts the World Cup.
The park is always booked to capacity in June and July -- winter months in South Africa and the best time for seeing game, since the vegetation grows thinner and animals become easier to spot.
But South Africa's national parks have seen record demand this year as hundreds of thousands of World Cup visitors descend on the country.
Kruger, which booked its 22 camps to capacity a year in advance, decided in June to allow more day-visitors in order to accommodate the football crowd, raising the number of daily entries permitted at each of its 10 gates by 10 percent, to between 330 and 825 visitors.
It also set up big-screen viewing areas inside the park where visitors can catch the carnage on the field before setting off to see the South African savannah's food chain in action.
Brendon Pitt, an Australian fan whose team played the opening-round zebra to Group D lions Germany and Ghana, said the chance to go on safari had made his World Cup trip worthwhile.
"I've always wanted to go on safari, ever since I was a little kid, so to be able to do that and come for the World Cup is pretty spectacular," he told AFP.
His compatriot Matthew Craze said the safari experience had more than made up for the Socceroos' lacklustre performance.
"The soccer's just an excuse to come here," he said, as he and three friends set out in search of lions and leopards in a giant Land Rover that had an Australian flag draped out the window.
"We already got to see a rhino and giraffes and zebras and all that. It was unreal," said his friend Luke McInnes.
"We nearly hit the rhino in our car to be honest. Coming around the corner and there it was about two metres away," said Craze.
"Our car's pretty tough, but I don't know if it's that tough. That thing was a tank," said McInnes.
Tourism officials say South Africa's wildlife has been one of the big draws of the tournament, helping bring 500,000 international visitors despite the global economic downturn.
Those numbers have contributed to making this World Cup the second-best-attended ever, behind only the United States in 1994.
"This is the best time to come to South Africa for a safari experience, because in June-July you get the best sightings," said Roshene Singh, chief marketing officer with government tourism agency South Africa Tourism.
"It is one of our strong points as a country, it is what we are known for."
At a viewing area near Kruger's main lodge, fans from Argentina, China, Italy, Portugal and South Africa gathered to watch a game, as a mock World Cup match between "Australia" and "New Zealand" unfolded on a nearby lawn.
Nino Colombatti, an Italian winemaker based in Los Angeles, said the soccer-safari experience had been one of the most memorable of the World Cup.
"I took the pictures myself. It's not that I just bought it in the store. That will be a memory for me and something to show my children that I was there, that I actually saw these animals," Colombatti told AFP.
"It's something that I will take with me to the ground," he said.
|Griezmann backs Pogba to prove doubters wrong for France|
|Sanchez ´expected something better´ from Manchester United move|
|Javi Martinez in the dark over Spain squad omission|
|Giggs feeling the tension ahead of Wales debut|
|Juventus confirm Alex Sandro thigh injury|
|Hart praises ´loyal guy´ Southgate amid World Cup axe fears|
|I miss Morata, says recalled Costa|
|I can improve even more at Manchester City - Bernardo Silva|
|Neymar will be fit for the World Cup, insists Ronaldo|
|Costa thinks Griezmann will stay at Atletico Madrid|
|Ferdinand worried by England´s World Cup striker options|
|Stam leaves Reading after wretched run|
|Neymar is great, we´ll see if he joins Real Madrid – Asensio|
|Maguire tips ´nightmare´ Vardy to replace injured Kane|
|Malcom ready to leave Bordeaux and chase Bayern ´dream´|
|Asensio insists Zidane was not unfair to him|
|Griezmann wants future resolved before World Cup|
|Nocerino wants Conte return after Italy´s World Cup ´disaster´|
|Iconic 2002 World Cup haircut was media distraction, reveals Ronaldo|
|Wright: Difficult for Liverpool sensation Salah to resist Real Madrid|
|Yaya Toure yet to report for international duty, confirm Ivory Coast|
|Morrison confirms plans to play for Jamaica|
|Germany should be proud to have Sane, says Tah|
|Bertrand out of England friendlies with back injury|
|Young backs Mourinho over Shaw treatment|
|BVBolt? Athletics great scores header while training in Dortmund kit|
|Fekir will look to leave Lyon the right way, says agent|
|Alisson loves Roma and we haven´t discussed Liverpool move, insists agent|
|McTominay: I always wanted to play for Scotland|
|Chiesa vows to honour Astori with Italy displays|
|England´s Pope ready for Heaton challenge amid World Cup race|
|Lautaro Martinez confirms impending Inter move|
|Morata wasn´t happy with Spain snub, admits Alonso|
|Raiola rages over Italy´s Balotelli snub|
|Raiola hopes Reina to Milan hastens Donnarumma exit|
|Former Sevilla coach Berizzo eyeing return after beating cancer|
|Cutrone did not expect whirlwind Milan season and Italy call-up|
|´Happy´ Kepa mulled over Real Madrid move|
|Lucas Vazquez keen on Real Madrid stay|
|Juventus clear Chiellini of serious injury|
|Newcastle charged as youth team allegedly breach advertising regulations|
|I did not betray Roma – Pjanic could not pass up Juventus opportunity|
|Title-chasing Sarri closes on Napoli renewal as he hopes to repay fans|
|Messi and Ronaldo reveal World Cup kits|
|Nara praises Inter project as Icardi talks continue|
|Marseille´s Rami wants to ´tickle´ PSG|
|Salah can push on to Messi´s level - Robertson|
|Iniesta better than last year – Lopetegui|
|Okon quits as Mariners head coach|
|Lopetegui: Morata must earn World Cup spot|
|Ronaldo has asked about China – Scolari|
|Ronaldo: I always show I´m the best|
|Manchester United not in Jorginho talks, says Napoli star´s agent|
|Hazard will not be false nine for Belgium, says Martinez|
|Martial agent will not guarantee Manchester United stay|
|Ronaldo slams ´fake news´ amid latest tax case claims|
|Van Dijk and Gundogan expect tough City-Liverpool tie|
|VAR to be introduced in Eredivisie|
|Di Biagio sees bright Italy future with Cutrone and Chiesa|
|Koeman won´t rule out Van Persie Netherlands return|
|I ate badly for years – how Messi solved his vomiting problem|
|Tuchel feels he would still be at Dortmund without bomb attack|
|Pogba shows off new haircut as Ben Yedder trolls Man United star|
|Pogba cannot be happy but must focus on France, says Deschamps|
|Debuchy disappointed to be left out of latest France squad|
|Barton rejects England´s World Cup chances|
|Sevilla coach Montella interested in Italy job|
|Football brain lacking, poor attitude and fourth choice – The Mourinho-Shaw saga at Manchester Unite|
|UEFA charges Marseille and Lyon for Europa League trouble|
|Injured Chiellini out of Italy squad|
|Buffon cites Astori among reasons for Italy return|
|Welbeck faces no action over alleged dive against Milan|
|Barcelona? I´m staying with PSG, insists Marco Verratti|
|Bastian Schweinsteiger & Ana Ivanovic announce birth of son|
|The numbers behind Cristiano Ronaldo´s 50 hat-tricks|
|Consistency the only thing stopping me from being the best, claims Depay|
|Guardiola second to none tactially, says Man City midfielder Gundogan|
|Liverpool captain Henderson ponders Salah and Suarez comparison|
|Messi worried by the uncertainty retirement brings|
|Rants, criticism a familiar story – Is Mourinho set for Man United exit?|
|Messi desperate for World Cup success|
|Napoli causing Juventus problems as Sarri revels in crucial win|
|The better Ronaldo is, the better Madrid will be – Vazquez lauds four-goal hero|
|Salah ´unstoppable´ like Messi, says Watford boss Gracia|
|Demanding Mourinho is still special, insists Matic|
|Dallas 3 Seattle Sounders 0: Dempsey sees red after VAR|
|Ronaldo ´from another galaxy´, says Zidane|