World Cup review, Part III: The moguls who battled doubt

This is part three of our series looking back at the 2010 World Cup. To read part two, click here.

The Fifa World Cup conjures images of perseverance and devotion; of sweat and tears — the core ingredients of any would-be champions. Yet, little, if any, thought is given to those off the field who make it all possible; those who put in hours to ensure your experience of the globe’s greatest sports showpiece amounts to clicking a button on a remote.

Those chosen for this task ahead of 2010 were set to embark on what for many would possibly be the greatest challenge in their careers.

“It was unbelievable; I was running on adrenaline,” says Phumlani Moholi, the technology and telecoms chief. “When there was a game, we used to have meetings at 7am to plan for the day and then at 12 o’clock at night you still have to summarise what we have learned, what can we do differently. And then again you’re up early. It was one of the most hectic times I’ve ever been through.”

A former chief technology officer at MTN, Moholi is perhaps best known as the co-founder of the mobile data network, Rain. Before he would conceive of that idea, he had to endure the huge learning experience that came with being part of the World Cup’s local organising committee (LOC). 

Under his portfolio, Moholi oversaw almost every technological aspect of the tournament one could conceive of. Every broadcast had to be impeccable and uninterrupted. The connectivity infrastructure had to be able to carry enormous pockets of data. At every stadium the scoreboards had to be world class; every flood light had to have a dedicated technician who would monitor its voltage. All of this had to be secured by a robust source of back-up power. Moholi even had to build an emergency network, which ran separately from other cellular networks, in case any disaster struck. 

The story for everyone in the LOC was the same: the World Cup is now life; life is the World Cup.

“It was a bitter-sweet experience, I must tell you,” says Skhumbuzo Macozoma, who headed up the LOC’s transport department. “There were some good moments, but there were also terrible moments. You know the last time I went to the stadium was at the final of the World Cup. I’ve not been ever again.” 

“Fifa wanted you to camp a few weeks or a month before the World Cup away from home and that was pretty hectic. My daughter was born on the 10th of June 2010. I had already been in the camp in Sandton since the end of May and I couldn’t go home.”

Macozoma had to ensure that all teams, administrators, officials and fans could move through the borders smoothly. They also had to be able to travel easily in the country — often at short notice. The Gauteng freeway improvement project that had to be largely completed by 2010 and there was the small matter of getting the Gautrain up and running.

His plate also had hospitality duties lumped on it. This entailed ensuring there were VIP rooms constructed for Fifa guests and dignitaries — and even to finding a chef who could put together a special menu. Everything, of course, had to be done according to the governing body’s spec.

After this experience he would go on to be appointed chief executive of the South African National Roads Agency in 2016. 

“I think 50% we learned, 50% we brought our expertise,” Macozoma says. “Fifa can be very peculiar and they’ve got their own ways of doing things. You had to learn the Fifa way otherwise you would have been in conflict with them a lot. And I was [in conflict] because I was a staunch defender of South Africa’s positions and interests, and I did things according to government policy, what I thought ethically was correct. So I butted heads a lot with some of the Fifa people. So much so that at the end of the tournament, I just didn’t want to go to Brazil [2014 World Cup] and I guess they didn’t want me either. So we didn’t bother each other.”

While the LOC was consumed by the mission of delivering on time, an annoying buzzing criticism began to grow louder: South Africa would not be ready. What began as the usual humdrum criticism from naysayers gained traction and even attracted high-profile voices — such as that of Franz Beckenbauer, one of Germany’s greatest football players and managers, who suggested the best plan might be to move on from the plan to host the World Cup in Africa before it was too late. Closer to the time, multiple governments began to issue insulting travel advisories to their citizens warning them to be cautious in the dark jungle of Johannesburg.

In South Africa, optimism wasn’t exuding from all of our pores either. Could the construction be completed in time? Would our shaky power grid hold up to the increased pressure?

“The biggest problem, I have to be honest with you,” Moholi says solemnly, “is South Africans not having faith in other South Africans. Maybe you can pull up the articles about how bad we were and that sort of thing. They also came from South Africans, not just internationally. 

“The thing that people don’t know is that I built up a team from scratch — of young South Africans by the way. People always think that South Africa doesn’t have the capability,” he says. “And secondly it was the most advanced World Cup — way more advanced than Germany [in 2006].”

Indeed, the 2010 World Cup was a success by any conceivable metric. The event reached an estimated global audience of 3.2-billion people, all games went off without issue and the myriad nightmares that the international arena predicted never came to fruition.

Looking back, the one criticism that both Moholi and Macozoma have is the perceived failure of South Africa to capitalise on the moment and the work ethic that had to be summoned to make the World Cup possible. There’s an argument to be made that, in both footballing networks and generally the country, we have yet to match the efficiency and organisational peaks that the 2010 deadline compelled us to reach. But perhaps that’s a discussion all on its own. 

The important takeaway, from the patriotic optimist’s perspective, is that South Africa achieved what much of the world said was impossible. No one can ever take that away from us.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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