The advertisements began in local media at the weekend. “The Champions are coming,” they say. Come watch Brazil for only 70 rand.

In seven months’ time, some of the greatest footballing nations will descend on South Africa for the June 14-28 Confederations Cup, an eight-country tournament held every four years in the World Cup host nation a year before the world’s most-watched sporting event.

The United States, Brazil, Spain, Iraq, Egypt and New Zealand – champions of their regions – and World Cup holders Italy and host nation South Africa will battle it out for the title of Champion of Champions in a tournament seen mainly as a dry run for 2010.

South Africa’s ability to stage a successful World Cup – the first on the African continent – has been called into question ever since it won the right to host the event in 2004.

The Confederations Cup, while expected to attract only a fraction of the 350 000-plus visitors expected at the World Cup, will give a good indication of its preparedness.

Conscious of the level of scrutiny, Fifa has already yanked from the line-up a stadium that is being built new for the World Cup in the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

Citing concerns over the stadium’s readiness, Fifa has restricted the Confederations Cup to four venues in Johannesburg, Pretoria, the north-western city of Rustenburg and the central city of Bloemfontein that required only minor upgrades.

Last year, the slow pace of progress on some of the five new stadiums being built for the World Cup was causing palpitations.

Now, the stadiums are popping up apace and the focus of Fifa’s and the world’s concerns has shifted to security and public transport.

South Africa is one of the world’s most violent societies. Around 50 people are murdered each day and another 50 the object of a murder attempt.

While most contact crimes, like murder and rape, are carried out by people known to their victims, visitors are particularly vulnerable to armed robberies, airport theft and hijackings.

“I know the fear of crime is holding people back to come to South Africa,” Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille said at a charity event in the city last week, despite tourism arrivals to South Africa posting, on the contrary, a steady increase.

The government has vowed to “fight fire by fire” to bring down crime and to take help from anyone who is offering, including foreign police services and the growing army of around 350 000 private security guards that outnumber uniformed police by around four to one.

French police spent four weeks recently training 120 South African police in the art of crowd control. The US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is also offering a hand in the fight against crime.

“We are now well on our way to provide support,” US Ambassador Eric Bost said recently.

When it comes to public transport, the Confederations Cup is also focusing minds in a country devoid of integrated public transport. The 15 and 22-seater private minibus taxis that transport the masses to and fro are notoriously unsafe.

Apart from the poor state of repair of the vehicles, passengers have been known to get caught in the crossfire between gun-toting rival taxi operators.

Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth aim to have new, bus-based rapid transit systems up and running by 2010, to ferry tourists between their hotels, the stadiums and fan parks.

Johannesburg is pulling out all the stops to ensure the first phase of its new system linking Soweto township with central Johannesburg is in place by the Confederations Cup.

But as the clock ticks down to an April deadline the all-powerful minibus-taxi associations have yet to agree, even in principle, to climb aboard.

Finally, by the time the Confederation Cup rolls around, Fifa will also be hoping to have ironed out the issue of accommodation.

Fifa’s booking agency, Match, is in dispute with the owners of small hotels and bed and breakfasts over rates for rooms during the World Cup.

The agency is looking to contract 55 000 rooms for the tournament. By May, it had secured only 35 000 rooms. – Sapa-dpa

DATED: 18th November 2008