Slow ticket sales, public transportation problems and a late marketing campaign threaten to cast a cloud over the Confederations Cup in South Africa _ the dress rehearsal for the 2010 World Cup.

The two-week tournament features the six continental champions, including World Cup winner Italy, European champion Spain and South American powerhouse Brazil.

“We feel confident we are going to deliver a hugely successful Confederations Cup,” Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the local organizing committee, said recently.

But not all South Africans are convinced. Many don’t seem to care about the “Festival of Champions.”

With less than two weeks to the June 14 kickoff, about 70 percent of the 640,000 available tickets have been bought. Organizers have been scrambling to boost sales by getting companies to buy tickets in bulk.

Special “over-the-counter” ticketing centers have been set up to simplify FIFA’s strict sale procedures, which many South Africans found complicated and confusing.

The majority of South Africa’s football fans are poor and there have been complaints that even the lowest-priced tickets of $10 are beyond their reach. Few have credit cards or access to the Internet and most buy tickets when they reach the stadium _ often leading to last-minute rushes and crushes that FIFA is desperate to avoid.

“There has been a failure to understand the South African market,” football commentator Bareng-Batho Kortjaas said. “It is not about changing the rules but about appreciating the environment you find yourselves in.”

There are few banners or posters advertising the event at South Africa’s main airports, in Johannesburg _ site of the opening match _ and on the streets of other host cities like the capital, Pretoria.

“The marketing has been shoddy _ and that is a compliment. There is nothing screaming that South Africa is hosting this event,” Kortjaas told The Associated Press.

The global economic meltdown has also dampened sponsors’ interest in the tournament.

Despite having the top teams, the Confederations Cup lacks the prestige and pulling power of the World Cup.

To the annoyance of local football officials, there has been much comparison between the lackluster promotion of the Confederations Cup and the all-out marketing of a cricket tournament hastily moved to South Africa from India in April out of concerns about security in India.

Organizers of the Twenty20 Indian Premier League tournament prepared eight stadiums, booked thousands of hotel rooms, laid on extra flights into the country and wowed audiences with imaginative, omnipresent advertising campaigns _ with only three weeks’ notice.

“I hope they (FIFA) learn from us,” IPL commissioner Lalit Modi said.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter blasted the local organizing committee about the lack of buzz around the Confederations Cup on his last visit in September.

Since then, marketing has improved with the launch of the television campaign featuring Spain striker Fernando Torres and Brazil star Kaka.

About $2 million has been spent on marketing and organizers are promising a beefed up campaign in the last weeks _ although they will still be competing with the slicker advertisements for the British Lions rugby tour.

“The (marketing) campaign is good. What is missing now is time,” FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke said at a recent briefing for foreign media. “It would be a shame if we don’t have full stadiums. It is a unique chance. It is something special.”

Delia Fischer, a FIFA spokeswoman, believes excitement about the Confederations Cup is mounting and will increase as teams begin to arrive in the next week.

“There is a sense of anticipation building,” Fischer said. “I really believe South Africans don’t want to miss out on seeing the kinds of players coming.”

South Africa is acutely aware that the rest of the world is watching ahead of the 2010 tournament, with frequent newspaper headlines about stadium construction delays and the nation’s rampant crime.

New stadiums are on track to be completed later this year while the four existing venues that will be used for the Confederations Cup have been refurbished to FIFA standards.

“In terms of facilities we are as or more prepared as Germany,” said Richard Maguire, editor of Kickoff magazine.

Crime will remain a concern but police have staged various simulation exercises to show their readiness for all scenarios from hooliganism to ambush marketing.

South Africa has no decent mass transport system like previous World Cup hosts and will be hard pressed to cope with the 450,000 visitors expected to flood into the country next year.

The government is spending more than $15.8 billion on constructing and improving existing public transport infrastructure.

A new bus transit system was met with violent protests by minibus taxi drivers claiming it would threaten their livelihood. Just ahead of his election, President Jacob Zuma assured them the new system would not proceed without addressing their concerns.

Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele has assured organizers _ and the public _ that there will be an effective transport system during the tournament.

DATED: 5th June 2009