Africa’s eye on the ball

By Patrick Smith

Posted on June 9, 2010 08:02

The sense of national unity and purpose that a successful World Cup could bring South Africa is both needed and attainable, says Patrick Smith

Surrounded by a table of earnest correspondents in London, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma spoke cheerily about the multiplier effect of the billion-dollar investments in the World Cup – how the tournament would boost jobs and skills while changing the international image of Africa. And then a nervous moment. The veteran Africa correspondent-turned-satirical novelist Michael Holman told Zuma he wanted to question him on a matter that would cause him great personal anguish: “I’m referring to the state of your national football team.”

A visibly relieved Zuma chuckled and insisted: “We are confident, we are going to surprise you!” Presidential optimism about the goal-scoring potential of Bafana Bafana, South Africa’s national team, was probably the least persuasive part of Zuma’s encounter with us that day. On matters such as the country’s World Cup ?preparations and the underlying strength of the national economy, most of us left the room a little more convinced.

Two years ago, that would have been unlikely. Then the foreign orthodoxy was that the World Cup in South Africa was heading for disaster: building of the stadiums and the transport links was chronically behind schedule, power cuts were causing economic chaos, and xenophobic attacks were undermining African confidence in Nelson Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Nation.

Now the final will be hosted in the newly-upgraded gleaming Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, shaped like an African calabash, symbolising a turnaround in perceptions and realities. The other stadiums – some renovated and new ones in Cape Town and Durban – are ready too, the airports in Johannesburg and Cape Town have been rebuilt, and the new roads are open. Most importantly, the crowds are coming. So far, FIFA says, 2.2 m tickets have been sold, about 85% to South Africans, and the last 500,000 tickets went on sale in early April. In fact, British fans had bought 67,000 tickets by mid-April, in the hope of seeing England return to its World Cup glory of 1966. More significantly still, the usually risk-averse American fans have snapped up more than 120,000 tickets.

That leaves the bigger question of whether this year’s football World Cup can build on the magic of the rugby final in 1995 when Nelson Mandela used a sport that had been the preserve of the white minority to reunite the country behind the national Springboks team and cheer them to victory.

This year’s World Cup is even more important for South Africa. Alongside the Olympics, it is the biggest sporting event in the world and football is the most popular sport in South Africa and the rest of Africa. And 20 years after the release of Mandela, South African ?politics are in ferment with fierce debate over the policies and politicians that can take the country forward. The sense of national unity and purpose that a successful World Cup could provide is both needed and attainable. A creditable performance by Bafana Bafana would help and, judging by its recent matches in Latin America, that is looking more likely. It is also a landmark moment for Africa more widely, where teams such as Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are set to redeem the continent’s footballing credentials.

Beyond South Africa, there are lessons for FIFA. With most African governments espous-ing the spirit of accountability and free elections, it is time for FIFA to re-examine its own organisation in that light. FIFA says the hosting of the World Cup in South Africa proves its commitment to the development of football in Africa. It can build on that with more substantial training programmes for players and managers, as well as more investment in grounds and facilities in Africa. With a success in South Africa under its belt, FIFA will surely have the financial resources to make good its promises to Africa.

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