World Cup is golden opportunity for Africa — if it succeeds
The countdown has begun for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, an event, now only a year away, that could change perceptions about the whole continent and show the globe a festival of sport that reverses obstinate stereotypes of a region in constant crisis and violence.
Africans are deeply frustrated by the tendency of foreigners, including investors, to see Africa almost as one country instead of more than 50 extremely diverse nations. Meltdown in Zimbabwe can impact on investors’ perceptions of countries thousands of miles away on the other side of the continent. By the same token, a successful World Cup will not only change the way people see Africa but also encourage future mega events and the huge investment that they can bring.
So, much more is riding on 2010 than a mere sporting spectacle, albeit the most watched sports event in the world and the biggest ever held in Africa. A successful tournament, with the special atmosphere that happy, dancing and singing local supporters can bring, should land a tourist and investment bonanza for South Africa in particular, but also help the surrounding region and countries further afield.
If the tournament falls short, the reverse will be true.
Even as late as the end of last year, the negative voices were still loudly casting doubt on South Africa’s ability to organise such a huge event, suggesting everything from stadiums to transport routes would not be ready. White South Africans, many still sceptical about black rule 15 years after the end of apartheid and keener on rugby and cricket than football, were among the cynics.
But recently the Jeremiahs have begun to quieten down and it is now generally accepted that all 10 stadiums, half of them new, will be ready months ahead of the competition. This month’s eight-nation Confederations Cup –although it has little of the buzz of the bigger event — will give an idea of South African organisation and test four of those stadiums.
Still, big challenges remain and there is no room for complacency. Much work is still to be finished if the World Cup is to succeed and be the greatest edition ever, as both its organisers and President Jacob Zuma have promised.
The biggest potential spoiler is undoubtedly South Africa’s daunting reputation for violent crime. Organisers clearly see the danger — significant attacks on foreign fans would be disastrous for the World Cup.
Police are recruiting thousands of new members and will deploy 40,000 specially trained men to protect stadiums, hotels and major transport routes.
Officials point to South Africa’s highly successful organisation of many events including a cricket and rugby world cup and the recent Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket–moved to South Africa because of security fears at home. Fans do not seem to be deterred. Ticket sales around the global are heavily oversubscribed so far.
The question is, will the giant police operation be enough to safeguard notoriously anarchic football fans, especially after they have a few drinks and decide to go for a wander? The European culture of aggressive supporters groups fighting each other is also totally foreign to the African way, so police will also have to handle that at the same time as deterring criminal gangs who may see the World Cup as a golden opportunity of their own, with many thousands of comparatively well-heeled tourists, not to mention journalists carrying expensive equipment, touring the country.
Insiders also say transport is still not adequate for the World Cup and cooperation will be needed between South Africa’s traditional minibus operators and a fleet of special coaches planned by the government–the taxi drivers have already protested against the plan, believing it will rob them of revenue. Hotel capacity is another issue and South Africa is encouraging the use of guesthouses, national park lodges and even timeshare apartments to meet the shortfall.
Officials say whatever the problems, South Africans will pull together next year to ensure the tournament brings their country unrivalled kudos, with none of the whingeing seen in Western nations about the disruption caused by big events. President Zuma himself has emphasised the economic benefits of World Cup construction during South Africa’s first recession in nearly two decades and promised a competition to remember.
So will this World Cup be the best and most joyful ever, boosting the image of Africa, or could it be a disastrous disappointment that reinforces the cynics?
PHOTO: A general view of Soccer City, also known as the FNB Stadium, in Johannesburg May 15, 2009. The stadium is earmarked to host both the opening and final soccer matches of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko