/ 3 December 2009

World Cup: SA ready to provide continental lift

As the Fifa World Cup trophy arrived in Cape Town on Tuesday night, Danny Jordaan, the architect of next year’s tournament, declared ”the death of doubt”.

The waterfront location was symbolic. Football’s greatest prize had landed on the southern tip of the continent, and its magic would flow north, turning all Africans into players in a show they may think of as the playground of the old colonial powers.

Here in host country South Africa everyone is looking for the moment that turns the first African World Cup into reality. For many it will arrive on Friday when South Africa find themselves at the head of one of eight groups for the tournament that kicks off on June 11, and fixtures and locations assume vivid new life.

But Jordaan and President Jacob Zuma must be deferred to when they say the arrival of the trophy bestowed authenticity on all the feelings of excitement and liberation that have grown since the Rainbow Nation beat Morocco and Egypt in the bidding race back in 2004.

Only a utopian or a gargoyle for the PR trade could preach that staging a football tournament for a month on the African continent will transform the physical lives of its people. It will not eradicate townships, HIV/Aids, violent crime or cavernous inequality, which the arrival of David Beckham, Fifa delegates and millionaire football industry types only serves to accentuate.

The road from Cape Town airport to the conference centre where the six African contenders will find out what they are up against in Friday’s draw takes football association functionaries past the Joe Slovo informal settlement, a scrapyard of corrugated metal sheds from which 20 000 residents are expected to be relocated to a ”project” to conceal crushing poverty from Europeans riding taxis along the N2 road.

But what matters more than the rich man’s unease at this stage is Africa’s own view of the World Cup and the benefits it may bestow. There is no real template for a whole continent bidding itself into the light of international recognition at such vast infrastructure cost.

The Beijing Olympics of 2008 were the world’s most expensive advertisement for Chinese power, and the Sydney Games of 2000 were self-described as a coming-of-age for Australia. Next summer’s World Cup, though, demolishes a psychological barrier between the so-called developed world and the globe’s most troubled landmass.

This week the authorities have bathed in that glow. ”Let us display the Rainbow Nation to the world, let us display that here on the southern tip of Africa, where mankind originates from, we can make the home of everyone,” President Zuma said in an interview with Jordaan, who told the Cup-reception audience: ”Today as we welcome this trophy, we announce the death of doubt.

”All of us who were in that struggle [against apartheid] said: ‘One day we are going to be a democratic South Africa, one day we are going to be a member of Fifa, one day we are going to host this World Cup’.” Apartheid collapsed only 15 years ago. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many African National Congress members were incarcerated, is a short boat ride from where football’s eurocrats dine in quayside restaurants. Jordaan calls Robben Island ”a place of dreams crushed, dreams renewed”.

Spreading responsibility
This backdrop of political struggle lends resonance to South Africa’s thoughts about next summer’s carnival. But this World Cup is also being sold as an African event, as Zuma emphasised: ”We are hosting it on behalf of the continent.”

One useful spin-off of the pan-African promotional approach is that it spreads the responsibility for beating Spain and Brazil to Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire ”It [the trophy] must not leave the continent. That’s the duty of all six African teams,” Zuma said. Mark Numanya, an Arsenal-supporting Ugandan sports editor, says: ”Africans will support the other African teams when theirs has gone out. We saw that in 2002, when everyone got behind Senegal [who reached the quarterfinals].”

Africa’s first World Cup representatives were Egypt, who lost 4-2 to Hungary in 1934, but it was 1970 before the continent gained its first point, from the 1-1 draw between Bulgaria and Morocco. No African team has advanced beyond the quarterfinals, a point first reached by Cameroon in 1990. With the depth of talent in this vast realm — Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Samuel Eto’o et al — the coronation of a first African world champion seems predestined, yet still no single nation possesses the resources or organisational strength to cross that Rubicon.

South Africa, a country of 49-million souls and 11 official languages, can already claim to have had one unifying moment through sport, with the 1995 Rugby World Cup win on home turf, which was deployed by Mandela to narrow the gulf between white Afrikaner culture and that of the newly emancipated black majority. This World Cup is the next stage on from racial rapprochement. It sends South Africa out into the world at the same time as inviting 450 000 foreigners in, for 64 matches, which is where some of the problems start.

Jérôme Valcke, the Fifa secretary general, claims that accommodation has gone ”from an issue to a non-issue”, which will be news to foreign travel agents, and said Fifa will rent planes to help Africans fly to Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban direct, rather than having to travel via European cities, which is the case for some of the smaller states. He also unveiled a new campaign to sell up to a million more tickets to the local population, promising a call centre, ticket bureau and a television and radio sales campaign.

Cathedral stadiums have been built to meet Fifa’s exacting standards for sponsors and VIPs. In some cities — Durban especially — this has burdened Jordaan’s organising committee with scandalous extra cost. Durban’s 70 000-seat Moses Mabhida Stadium is a mini-Wembley built almost within touching distance of the Absa Stadium, where rugby’s KwaZulu-Natal Sharks play in comfortable conditions. The Sharks say they have no intention of moving from their 52 000-seat home. South African club sport has no hope of filling those new grounds once the World Cup is over.

Cape Town’s new stadium cost R4-billion and holds 68 000. Japan, in 2002, could afford these monuments to Fifa’s hubris. South Africa, one feels, cannot. Public transport, and safety, are other persistent worries.

The vote for Africa in the old continental rotation system, since abandoned, was entwined with Blatter’s election as Fifa president, and his quest for African support (”He is the master of Fifa and decides everything,” grumbled Morocco’s bid leader after South Africa had won the race).

It was not idealism alone that brought the trophy across Africa and to the waterfront, but here it still feels like a cape of good hope. — guardian.co.uk