African business, politics and lifestyle
Can Bafana live up to World Cup host team billing?
There were the predictable platitudes from Sepp Blatter in South Africa this week, expressing satisfaction with the pace of construction of the country’s top stadia ahead of its hosting if the 2010 World Cup finals.
But there was little Swiss diplomacy on display from the FIFA president when dealing with the issue of the country’s national team, Bafana Bafana, whose rapid decline over the last years is now a major source of concern.
For FIFA, the World Cup has become a massive revenue-generating property. Over 80 percent of their considerable income is from sponsors of the tournament. The event has become the world’ biggest party or, as Blatter insisted on his four-day trip to Johannesburg and Cape Town, “the only event that transcends people and politics”.
Luckily, recent World Cup hosts have produced competitive teams, even when the event went to Asia for the first time in 2002. Then South Korea got to the semifinals and, in the process, created one of the largest street parties ever seen.
Germany in 2006 turned into a massive fiesta because of the momentum that came with the march of their team to the semifinals, a euphoria whipped up steadily over a month that culminated with some incredible scenes in Berlin. Germany’s position in the heart of Europe also allowed easy access for fans of England, France and Italy, who also contributed considerably to the party atmosphere.
To keep drawing in the sponsors, FIFA needs to recreate much of the atmosphere every four years but a lot is dependent on the local conditions.
With South Africa they haven taken a major risk. While Blatter’s dreams of a philanthropic legacy (and possible Nobel Peace Prize) are given great credence by his entrusting a first ever World Cup to Africa, this will be a much different tournament for two, possibly three, reasons: The weather, the distance and, maybe, the home team.
First, it will be a winter World Cup in South Africa, the first since Argentina 1978, with less opportunity for gay inner city abandon that marked the glorious summer days of Germany in 2006. While those in the northern hemisphere would regard a South African winter as mild, it is nevertheless not tepid enough to be conducive for mass outdoor celebrations.
Germany’s proximity to many of the qualified countries also meant an estimated total of almost 2-million visitors came across its borders to be part of the footballing fiesta, the vast majority without tickets but still able to party in city squares and at fan parks and be part of the ‘World Cup experience’.
As a long haul destination, South Africa estimates it will receive just 300 000 visitors. The cost of travel to the country is expensive (although once inside remarkably cheap by international standards).
And, as Blatter noted, there are not enough hotel beds. FIFA says it needs some 50,000; local tallies are put at more than 35,000, a significant shortfall.
Plus as people tighten their purse strings in a time of economic turmoil, a more well heeled audience is expected rather than the raucous fans that are responsible for much of the World Cup merriment.
But both the weather and lack of visitors can be overcome if World Cup fever sweeps up the local population. For that you need a competitive home team.
But, as Blatter pointed out, South Africa’s side has been “disappointing”. Embarrassing, indeed, with their failure to get past the first phase of qualification for the 2010 African Nations Cup finals.
Blatter talked about the poor state of the side on all the days he was in the country, highlighting FIFA’s nervousness that their World Cup is in imminent danger of turning into the biggest flop since Guy Ritchie’s last film.
“It is high noon for Bafana Bafana,” he dramatically claimed at one of his press conferences. “You have to move and move now,” he told local officials at another function.
Bafana Bafana have never been under this kind of pressure before and while they have well paid Brazilian coaches and a growing list of foreign-based players to pick from, they seem to be unable to show any signs of life.
Perhaps it is a temporary setback in much the same way Jurgen Klinsmann was vilified in Germany as pre-World Cup results for his side rarely satisfied the pundits.
But whatever the case, it was all too evident from Blatter this week that FIFA is deeply concerned. Unlike bricks and mortar, hotel beds or buses, it is not a problem with a ready solution.