The World Game heads south

Sport & Style

Never has so much depended on a sports event. The 2010 World Cup South Africa will be the biggest action extravaganza ever held on the African continent and the eyes of the world will be glued to its southern tip during June and July. Will fair winds fan the Cape of Good Hope?

South Africa has passed the litmus test of dress rehearsal by successfully hosting the Confederations Cup, but much is yet to be done to guarantee the World Cup is the winner it simply has to be.

This is the world game, in every sense. At stake is nothing less than Africa’s reputation. South Africa’s new President Jacob Zuma said as much at his inauguration in May 2009, promising that his country “will deliver a world-class event that will forever change the perceptions of the international community, and also ensure a lasting legacy for the people of Africa”.

Zuma echoed sentiments expressed by FIFA president Sepp Blatter when outlining his version of the grand design. “We sent a signal of hope and trust in the abilities of South Africa and the entire African continent when we awarded the 2010 World Cup,” said Blatter when meeting with representatives of South Africa’s building trade unions in Zurich to discuss fair wages on World Cup construction sites. “The World Cup is intended to have an enduring and positive effect on the economy and generate social change.”

Africa’s image in the world and the lasting effects of the World Cup are two major themes in the unfolding drama of South Africa being “the epicentre of world football for the next 12 months”.

Those are the words of Danny Jordaan, head of the FIFA Local Organising Committee. “As we stand we are very happy with the progress so far,” he enthused at a ceremony marking 400 days until kickoff. “We are confident that the World Cup will be a wonderful experience”.

The Confederations Cup will have fuelled his optimism. Blatter was upbeat about that event’s organisation, giving it 7.5 points out of 10. Yet it was a qualified success with significant problems exposed in vital areas such as ticketing, pricing and transport. Blatter admitted much work was needed “on logistics” while, at the same time, FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke was affirming “there is not a single issue where we have the feeling 11 months will not be enough to solve them.”

An estimated 450,000 foreign visitors are expected in South Africa for the June 11-July 11 World Cup. Danny Jordaan’s vision extends further: “In 2010 we want to increase the tourism numbers from the current 9 million visitors a year to 10 million. A key factor in this world cup is the tourism legacy and the jobs that come with it”.

Infrastructure issues

Transport and accommodation have been earmarked as requiring the most attention. The park-and-ride system used to ferry fans to and from the four Confederation Cup stadiums worked poorly, while an estimated 15,000 more hotel rooms are required for World Cup visitors.

South Africa is spending billions improving public transport networks in the major cities involved, including airport upgrades and major improvements to rail and bus and taxi services with much of this astronomical spend on action plans that will hopefully benefit the country long past 2010.

Security and safety are perennial issues even though Jordaan and top security experts point out that South Africa “has hosted 146 major events since 1994 without major incident”. The murder rate has dropped some 40% since the country hosted the 1995 rugby world cup but robbery and car-jackings have increased every year since 2004.

Millions of rand are being spent on boosting manpower and policing with a view to safety around World Cup events and superior crime prevention in the future. A contingent of 41,000 South African Police Service officers will be on specific Cup duty while a massive recruitment drive aims to increase general police numbers by 55,000 to 190,000. And special courts will operate day and night to deal specifically with World Cup related crime.

Eight new hotels are under construction in Cape Town alone, which is not that surprising as the Mother City is where much of the Cup action will play out, in a perfect setting for television. Pieter Cronje, Cape Town’s director of communication, humbly believes his city will welcome 4 in 5 of all foreign World Cup visitors.

The city has a lion’s share of games at the new Green Point stadium. Built between the slopes of Table Mountain and the sea, it is the country’s fairest sports setting. Green Point will host six group matches, a quarterfinal and a semi-final.

The city will also host the December 4 draw for the 32 competing teams, an event that’s guaranteed a colossal global television audience. The cumulative TV audience for the Cup’s 64 games is anticipated at about 40 billion.

Filling seats

Thanks to Green Point’s enviable location there probably won’t be a problem filling the 68,000-seat stadium during the World Cup. But poor match attendance at the Confederations Cup was evident and may also be a thorny issue in 2010.

FIFA handed out 70,000 free tickets to fill seats, which immediately implied that tickets were priced too high for the local market. Matches in Rustenburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein were played in stadiums nowhere near capacity.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions expressed its patriotic dismay, saying low stadium turnouts had seriously embarrassed the country “and must be improved upon to remove any doubts about our commitment to the 2010 World Cup tournament”.

Perhaps South Africans had instead decided to save for the real thing next June? The cheapest World Cup ticket available to residents is R140, rising to R1050 for a seat at the final. At R140, a group match ticket is 10 times the cost of a domestic premier league match. It’s huge money in a country with no minimal wage, where a large proportion of the population struggle to exist in conditions of abject poverty.

Nevertheless, the organisers remain confident all 3.2 million tickets available for the World Cup will be sold. The LOC plans to give away 120,000 World Cup tickets to stadium construction workers and “ordinary football fans who are low earners”.

Let’s hope for full grandstands. It was certainly disheartening to watch host team Bafana Bafana play Spain for third place in a half-empty Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Maybe it’s simply in the wrong place, too far away from densely populated urban areas?

The World Cup will involve 10 stadiums – five new, five upgraded – in nine cities. They include two more stadiums being built in regions where no local team is capable of filling them after the big event.

The new 46,000-capacity Mbombela Stadium near Nelspruit, in the far northeast corner of the country, is more than 350 kilometres by road from Johannesburg. The Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane is part of a multi-sports complex in the northern Limpopo province. It’s almost 300 kilometres from Tshwane/Pretoria, halfway to the Zimbabwe border. When rebuilt it will seat 45,000.

Free viewing

Both stadiums and Royal Bafokeng will host first and second-round World Cup games. Jordaan has already admitted Nelspruit and Polokwane pose a big problem in terms of accommodation and that fans will have to be transported in and out for matches. Mbombela is a siSwati word for “many people together in a small space”, so the organisers will have fervent hopes this holds true for the World Cup and beyond.

In reality, far more spectators will watch matches screened live and free at open-air FIFA “fan parks” proposed around the country. And the record local television audiences who tuned in for some Confederation Cup games will surely be beaten next year.

Jordaan remains confident that all stadiums will be ready on time. On June 11, with a year to go, he told the BBC that they would all be completed by December, but that now seems unlikely.

That same month construction workers asked FIFA to intervene in wage disputes at three sites, the Green Point stadium in Cape Town, Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium and the Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit. Then, in July, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) members called a construction sector strike countrywide to support their wage demands.

This industrial action posed a direct threat to stadium completion and other major infrastructure development, including the massive Gautrain fast-rail project in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Its first stage, due for completion by June 2010, will connect Johannesburg’s airport to the Sandton business area. There are even suggestions that Green Point Stadium may not be ready until February.

With so much money on the table it’s inevitable there’d be some squabbling. The cost of staging the 2010 World Cup has ballooned as the value of rand has fallen. Latest estimates now nudge US$US4 billion (about R32 billion).

South Africans are used to overcoming overwhelming odds. It’s an elemental part of their history. Staging a mammoth event such as the World Cup was never going to be easy. But anyone anxious about the capability of South Africans to rise to the occasion should hark back to the 1995 rugby world cup final at Ellis Park to recall the tumultuous transformation of a nation inspired by sport, a glorious moment immortalised by the sight of a triumphant Nelson Mandela wearing a gold and green Boks jersey.

There’s every chance that the 2010 World Cup South Africa will again invoke “Madiba magic” and galvanise not only the African continent but also the world at large.

Bafana Bafana’s blues

As the national team of the host country Bafana Bafana (The Boys) got a free pass to the World Cup. The big question is will they rise to occasion?

This looks highly unlikely. A string of recent losses and the sacking of the coach doesn’t auger well for their chances. They quitted themselves well during the Confederation’s Cup but losses since suggest Bafana Bafana simply don’t have what it takes to compete successfully against teams of the calibre expected in South Africa next June. And if the local lads get booted out in the first round how will this affect the event as a whole?

Fans will be hoping they do as well as in June when they were unlucky to lose to eventual tournament winners Brazil and were narrowly defeated by Spain for third place. But this only raised South Africa’s FIFA ranking two notches, from 72 to 70. Nevertheless, the Johannesburg daily The Star said the home team “walked away with a hard-fought fourth place with heads held high”.

Any confidence gained during the Confederations Cup has since been diluted. It’s still an awful long way to the top if Bafana Bafana truly want to rock ‘n’ roll.

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