South Africa’s much-questioned ability to stage the World Cup passed its first major test when the draw to qualify for the world’s most popular sporting event passed off smoothly.

“Now there’s no doubt that the 2010 World Cup will be here, will be a big success,” said Fifa president Sepp Blatter at the draw ceremony on Sunday after spending four days meeting with everyone from the organising committee to stadium construction workers who had only just called off a damaging strike.

The very fact that Blatter felt moved to state that the tournament would be held in Africa highlighted how the sceptics have yet to be fully silenced.

And the Local Organising Committee (LOC) will have taken note of warnings by Fifa that they will change the venues for stadiums that miss their deadlines.

But after a weekend that avoided major technical glitches, was largely crime-free and saw the passion of South African football fans on vivid display to foreign visitors, the LOC have every reason to breathe a sigh of relief.

“Today confirms that we as a country are really getting ready to host this event,” said South African football legend Kaizer Motaung who is now chairman of one the country’s biggest clubs, the Kaizer Chiefs.

The hundreds of international journalists present for the ceremony joined some 45,000 fans at Durban’s Absa stadium on Saturday as the Chiefs played arch rivals the Orlando Pirates in a thrilling 2-2 draw.

Fans of the teams who usually play in Johannesburg mingled freely without any attempt at segregation, generating an infectious feel-good factor.

But if there was little sign of the crowd trouble that has given the likes of England and Italy a bad name, fears about crime outside the ground refuse to go away.

Amid a massive police presence, the worst incident that appeared to have befallen any of the draw visitors saw a thief relieve German coach Oliver Bierhoff of his briefcase as he made his way to breakfast.

But the murder of an Austrian tourist on a golf course in a Durban suburb brought home the dangers in a country where around 50 people meet violent deaths every day.

Blatter said such a tragedy could occur anywhere in the world.

“On Friday evening in a bus station or tram station in Zurich a young girl of 16 years old was shot … crime is everywhere,” added the Swiss.

Blatter was also reluctant to deliver any public criticism over the rate of stadium construction, expressing confidence that a recent spate of strikes would now be a thing of the past and “all problems have a solution”.

But Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke warned further delays could well have serious consequences, with Port Elizabeth in danger of losing the right to be one of the hosts of the 2009 Confederations Cup.

The message was not lost on LOC chief executive Danny Jordaan, who acknowledged: “If we do not have the stadium, then we do not have the World Cup.”

With the projected cost of staging the tournament likely to be up to 500 million dollars more than first thought, the government says it will work out next month how it plans to make up the shortfall.

Thabo Mbeki, who stands down as head of state in 2009, is determined the tournament will bear testimony to his vision of an African renaissance and sees it as a key to development in post-apartheid South Africa.

Mbeki told the guests the tournament would be a “significant catalyst which will assist our efforts as a country and continent”.

“Africa is ready, Africa’s time has come,” he added.

PUBLICATION: The Times
AUTHOR: Chris Otton
DATED: 30th November 2007