The countdown to Africa’s first Soccer World Cup hits the 500-day mark on Tuesday, but you would hardly know it from walking the streets of SA’s host cities.

Construction of new stadiums and upgrades of existing ones are in full swing, along with a huge overhaul of the transport system that has turned swathes of Johannesburg into building zones. But away from the skeletons of the stadiums rising up, there is still little sign that one of the world’s premier sporting events is arriving just next year.

The 2010 Soccer World Cup mascot, the green-haired leopard named Zakumi, has gone into hiding after making a splash with his debut on TV in September. Even the Confederations Cup that begins in less than six months — seen as a dress rehearsal — does not quite show up yet on the national landscape.

Rich Mkhondo, spokesman for the local organising committee, says that is about to change, with the 500-day mark serving as a launch pad for promotions of the Confederations Cup. “We would begin earnestly to actually promote the World Cup when the Confed Cup is finished,” he said.

Mayors of the four Confederations Cup host cities would gather in Bloemfontein on Tuesday to unveil a campaign for the tournament that starts in June, he said.

The stadiums are largely on schedule, with new venues in Nelson Mandela Bay, Durban, Polokwane, Nelspruit and Soccer City in Johannesburg more than 60% complete and set to meet their October deadline, organisers say. Green Point Stadium in Cape Town is about halfway finished, while upgrades at other venues will be ready for the event.

Public interest is strong, with nearly 40000 people applying to become volunteers for the tournament — 10 times the number required.

The lucky few chosen to participate begin their training next month, when World Cup tickets are also set to go on sale. Some tickets have already been sold through tour packages, which soccer’s world governing body, Fifa, says have exceeded their targets, reaching $115m.

Concerns do remain, but organisers say they are being addressed. “The most challenging key areas are transportation, accommodation and security, but the plans and efforts made in those crucial areas by the responsible authorities are reassuring,” Fifa said.

The police are recruiting 55000 new officers, bringing up numbers to 190000 this year.

Fifa also said it was working with tourism officials to ensure that 55000 rooms were available each night during the World Cup, a goal it planned to meet by tapping hotels, guesthouses and even timeshares.

One of the most pressing issues is to ensure there is no repeat of the national power cuts experienced a year ago.

Generators are being installed in every stadium, the power grid is under careful surveillance and engineers will be on call 24 hours a day to ensure the tournament games go smoothly. “We would have been prepared, but with the crisis we are probably going to be overprepared,” said Eskom spokesman Fani Zulu.

“There is a lot of anxiety to say that SA has to deliver this and Eskom is part of that South African team, so Eskom has to work as hard as everyone else in the team to deliver this.”

While the power utility has stabilised power supply, today the gap between supply and demand is about 4%, but the safety margin should be 15%, according to a Fifa document on the World Cup’s energy needs.

As for every World Cup, Fifa requires each stadium to run off its own generator rather than rely on the local power supply. That ensures matches are held as scheduled, and that live TV coverage runs as planned.

But the event is not confined to the stadiums, organisers say.

“We want to make sure, even if there is a power supply interruption in a township that has nothing to do with the World Cup, we keep the inconvenience to a minimum, because in that township you will have thousands of people watching the game on television,” Zulu said.

PUBLICATION: Business Day
AUTHOR: Griffin Shea and Charlotte Plantive
DATED: 23rd January 2009