On June 11, 2010, soccer’s World Cup – the world’s largest sporting event and, many believe, the most important - will open with an African host for the first time.

The monthlong, 32-team tournament, to be held in 10 stadiums around South Africa, will present organizers with significant challenges regarding security, transportation and accommodation of the expected 450,000 international visitors.

For years, rumors have percolated that the 2010 World Cup would be moved elsewhere because officials of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, feared that South Africa would not be prepared to host such a major event only 15 years after dismantling the racial policies of apartheid.

But it is far too late for any contingency plans. A two-week dress rehearsal, the Confederations Cup, ends Sunday with the championship match between the United States and Brazil. The World Cup is coming in a year. Will South Africa be ready? The answer appears to be a qualified yes.

The Confederations Cup was reasonably well run. The four stadiums used were safe and secure, and construction on other stadiums should be finished by the end of the year. The fans were joyful and supportive of all teams. The weather was mostly spectacular. And the soccer was often riveting.

At the same time, few international visitors attended the tournament. A park-and-ride system to ferry fans to and from the stadiums often worked poorly. And 15,000 more hotel rooms are still needed to fully accommodate World Cup ticket-holders.

Several highly publicized incidents, involving the disappearance of money from the hotel rooms of Egyptian and Brazilian players, and the mugging of a few British rugby fans, also left organizers scrambling to assure that the World Cup would play out in a safe environment.

Still, despite some inevitable glitches, “the world has seen that South Africa is able to host a tournament,” said Jérôme Valcke, the general secretary of FIFA. “On a scale of 1 to 10, you are more than a five and closer to eight.”

Joseph S. Blatter, the president of FIFA, said there was a “moral responsibility” to bring the World Cup to South Africa.

“People don’t want to trust Africa,” he said. “That is wrong. Africa has given so much not only to football but to the whole world. Someday, something should come back. So let’s have this World Cup. Let’s celebrate Africa. Why not?”

The World Cup is viewed as a defining moment for South Africa, with $75 billion in improved roads, airports and other infrastructure; the creation of 415,000 jobs; the potential enhancement of international investment and tourism; and continued nation building in the wake of nearly half a century of apartheid.

Soccer has generally developed as the preferred sport for blacks here, while rugby is the No. 1 sport for whites. But during a Confederations Cup match between South Africa and Spain in Bloemfontein, the multiracial crowd might have been the most integrated in a South African stadium, said Danny Jordaan, the chief executive of the World Cup organizing committee.

“Nelson Mandela struggled for, went to jail for and was released pursuing a vision of a country that would recognize every human being as equal,” Jordaan said. “We want to move to a united future. What you need are projects that bind a nation, that carry a common and shared vision. I think that is what the World Cup will do.”

Security experts have said that no major sporting event in South Africa has been marred by serious violence. Still, organizers acknowledge they still must convince World Cup visitors that they can move around safely in a country that averages 50 murders a day and has had an escalation in crimes like carjacking.

“The most important thing is the safety of people,” said Lucas Radebe, the retired captain of South Africa’s 1998 and 2002 World Cup teams, who is now a roving ambassador for the 2010 World Cup. “People can’t feel threatened when they walk the streets.”

Security concerns were whipped into a froth during the Confederations Cup over highly publicized, disputed reports about the disappearance of $2,400 from the hotel rooms of five Egyptian players and a small amount of money from the room of a Brazilian player. It remains unclear whether the Egyptians lost their money to burglars or to women invited to celebrate in their hotel after a victory over Italy. The circumstances involving the Brazil player are also uncertain.

Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s deputy minister of police, chided reporters for inflating isolated incidents and creating the perception that “you are coming into a war zone.”

Organizers and other supporters of South Africa’s World Cup effort acknowledge that the country still faces many social problems a decade and a half beyond apartheid. Yet they suggest that ignorance, paternalism and prejudice among Westerners have created an unfairly alarmist view of South Africa. They note that some South Africans were robbed and had their pockets picked at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but that those incidents did not draw similarly alarmist headlines.

“It pains us a great deal when we read newspaper accounts from abroad saying a lot of lies about our country,” Bareng-Batho Kortjaas, an influential sports columnist and talk-radio host known as BBK, told a round-table group of international reporters. “Untruths, like there’s going to be no electricity, people are maimed at the airport, women are raped in the streets. Let us change our mind-set when it comes to Africa. We are not savages. We are human beings.”

In one instance, South African fans were the victims of misguided charges of racism at the Confederations Cup. Predominantly black fans at South Africa’s opening match were criticized by a group called Sport Against Racism Ireland for apparently booing Matthew Booth, the only white starter on the team. In truth, the fans ritually shouted Booooth, an elongated version of the player’s last name, every time he touched the ball. The Irish group later acknowledged its mistake.

A culture clash also occurred when some visiting players, along with international television networks, complained about the plastic horns, or vuvuzelas, blown incessantly during matches by South African fans. But Blatter declined to ban the trumpets, saying, “When you go to Africa, there is another noise, another ambience.”

Although security concerns grab most of the headlines, the issue “at the top of the top of the list” for FIFA is improving the World Cup transportation system in a country without a reliable national rail network, Valcke, the soccer group’s general secretary, said.

Some fans complained that the park-and-ride system made them late for Confederations Cup matches and stranded them at stadiums for two hours or more afterward.

“It has not worked as we expected,” Valcke said.

Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, said South Africa would face challenges more difficult than were faced by other recent World Cup host countries.

“In some ways, we won’t know if it meets the challenges until the tournament starts,” Gulati said. “But when you look at the history of the world over the last 25 years, an extraordinary story has unfolded in South Africa. It’s hard to argue with the decision to play there.”

Although 70,000 free tickets were distributed to fill stadiums at the Confederations Cup, all 3.2 million available tickets for the World Cup are expected to be sold, organizers said.

Facing criticism that many South Africans would receive little benefit from the World Cup, organizers said they set aside $225 million in procurement contracts for small and midsize South African businesses.

And to ensure that South Africans will not be priced out, 120,000 tickets will be given to disadvantaged fans at no cost, including 40,000 to workers who helped build the World Cup stadiums. Some 575,000 reduced-price tickets will be sold to South Africans for as little as $20, organizers said.

“The World Cup is an opportunity for South Africa to show that Africa and excellence belong in the same sentence,” Kortjaas, the columnist and talk-show host, said.

PUBLICATION: The New York Times
DATED: 27th June 2009