New York: Wilfried Lemke, the UN’s special adviser on sport for development and peace, has praised South Africa for its World Cup preparations, saying the country was building the world’s best football venues.

“I know many, many stadiums around the world, but the stadiums down in South Africa are the best that I’ve ever seen… they can be very, very proud,” he said.

“The architecture and the massive forms are unbelievable.”

The three arenas he saw “were so super that people who go there will never forget them”.

Lemke, a former manager of Bundesliga side Werder Bremen, has travelled to South Africa several times and is returning later this month.

He had no fears about security problems marring the tournament. “There were absolutely no problems with traffic or security,” he said.

“I am deeply convinced that the World Cup in South Africa will be a tremendous success. I also believe that there will be some surprises by African teams.”

Host teams normally did better than expected because of the support of the crowds and the tendency of referees to be lenient.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Lemke as his sports ambassador last year. His job is to promote sport as a tool to help resolve conflicts and as a way to give hope to people who have little. Ban wants Lemke to use sport as a way to advance education, teamwork and employability on the way to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

It was a way to counter the winner-takes-all ethic of Wall Street that had led to such ruin in sportsmanship, Lemke said. “To be fair and to make friends is tens times more important than to win.”

His post is largely ceremonial. He has no UN budget and must rely on funding from governments, foundations and NGOs.

Ban told him that Africa must be his priority. So, he’s travelled all over the continent in the past 18 months. “It’s really, really big challenge to meet the MDGs in Africa,” he said.

His plan is to find and develop a network of role models in Africa for children to emulate.

In a slum in Nairobi he found a boy involved in a sports-related project and took him back to Bremen for an internship at a radio station.

“He’s returned to Kenya because I want these role models to go back to their neighbourhoods and show the young boys and girls what they can do,” Lemke said.

He wants to multiple that by many thousands. The internship cost just e3 800 (R41 850).

Lemke’s big goal is to stage a football match between an Israeli and a Palestinian team in a new football stadium built by Fifa in Ramallah, on the West Bank. Lemke said the first step would be to organise a German team to play in Tel Aviv before playing a Palestinian squad in Ramallah. He was speaking to Israeli authorities, who would have to give their permission, he said.

Lemke visited Gaza City last summer and was appalled by the destruction of the war of late December/ early January. He said there was just one 25m swimming pool in the entire territory and the Gazan track team was practising on a track covered in sand in a dilapidated stadium.

“We have to stop this new generation of suicide bombers growing up… we have to stop this catastrophe and give the youth there a future,” he said.

Lemke said he’d find it easy to maintain his neutrality as a UN official in South Africa next year, suppressing any desire to support Germany.

“I am normally on the side of the disadvantaged,” he said, “and I was very happy when Ghana defeated Brazil in Cairo last Friday night because the whole continent of Africa was in joy.”

Lemke was surprised that all Africa was happy when one African country won. “In Europe you’d never find that if Italy wins the World Cup that someone would clap their hands in the UK, France or Germany.”

AUTHOR: Joe Lauria
DATED: 22nd October 2009