Families spill out of their shiny Toyotas and Hondas into the packed car park to prepare for a day’s shopping. They come in their hundreds, driving down the long, straight highway, past brightly coloured homes that stand in neat lines. These family shoppers are middle-class and white and heading into what would, until recently, have been a no-go area. For the Maponya Mall is one of the most striking signs of change in South Africa as the main shopping centre for Soweto, the township that was once a byword for poverty and oppression.

There are still outposts of tumbledown shacks, with their corrugated iron roofs and rough brick walls, but each month a few more disappear, to be replaced with neat and tidy homes. By 2010 and the football World Cup, the South African authorities want to have completed the transformation of Soweto so that fans who decide to indulge in a little cultural tourism, to see the sprawling suburb of Johannesburg where Nelson Mandela lived, will be witnessing a symbol of a revived nation.

In Great Britain, the 2012 Olympic Games are being held up as a potential driver for change, both physically in the infrastructure and psychologically in the pride of the people. The watchwords are legacy and regeneration. South Africa wants to have proved the potency of those words two years earlier than London with a World Cup that will leave an indelible print on minds around the world, as well as on a people striving to throw off the shackles of their history.

It is not easy. There are hordes of doubters and critics who question why South Africa, with millions still in poverty, wants to spend almost £2 billion on hosting a football tournament in a country where a pitch is usually a dusty patch of clay between open sewers and a rough road.

Standing at the entrance to the Maponya Mall car park, one burly Afrikaner — who identified himself simply as “Becker” — stared me hard in the eyes to say loudly: “What is the point? There are millions of poor people and it will never get finished. The whole thing will be a mess.”

You can see his point. South Africa is a troubled nation, with up to 21,000 murders a year and armed robberies on the increase. The white community live in homes surrounded by tall brick walls, their burglar alarm systems highly visible, and most are eager to tell their personal story about crime. Black teenagers within sight of Ellis Park, one of the stadiums that will be used in 2010, patrol their ghetto with guns chillingly visible in their belts.

Then there are the blackouts in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city. Whole suburbs are plunged into darkness because there is not enough electricity generation capacity.

South Africa cannot risk terrorists, hooligans or protesters hijacking this rare moment of glory on the global stage. If the Beijing Olympics were conducted behind the barbed wire of a security compound, the 2010 World Cup will be conducted under the watchful gaze of 200,000 police, dressed in armoured vests, equipped with riot gear and trained to use their firearms with deadly accuracy. Helicopters and planes will patrol the skies with high-tech surveillance cameras capable of spotting a squashed lager can from 10,000 feet.

It seems so bleak and forbidding. But Becker had not watched dozens of kids kicking balls at a new soccer school down the road in Soweto or witnessed the 40,000 wide-eyed fans who packed into the new Orlando Stadium, which will be a World Cup training venue, last weekend.

Football here is not just the people’s game, it is the game for the poor black people of the townships. With every kick, children here dream that they can emulate someone such as Lucas Radebe, who escaped Soweto to captain Leeds United and South Africa.

Just a couple of miles from that school, the majestic curved bowl of Soccer City, the stadium that will host the World Cup final on July 11, 2010, rises from what was disused land, where they mined 60 per cent of all the gold in the world.

The stadium’s colours are ochre and brown, the shades derived from a traditional African cooking pot, the curve of the venue shaped like the pot’s sides. Inside, the final lengths of grey steel are sliding into place above what looks like a perfect circular bowl. If Wembley is the best stadium in the world, as the FA never tires of saying of its £757 million monolith jammed into an industrial estate in northwest London, Soccer City is an architectural gem carved from the defunct gold fields of Johannesburg.

The 94,000 seats are from the same British manufacturer as those fitted in Wembley but, after that, the similarities quickly evaporate. Fans at Soccer City will feel that they are within touching distance of the pitch. The concourses are wide and tall and architects say that Soccer City will have more catering outlets and toilets than any other stadium in the world.

Supporters will be ferried there in high-speed buses, tethered in dedicated lanes like rubber-wheeled trams, and enter along a wide, Sowetan version of Wembley Way. But instead of a view of Wembley Park Tube station, they will have Johannesburg’s towering skyline behind them. This is football in glorious widescreen Technicolor, a continent away from Wembley’s beer and burgers culture.

Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, world football’s governing body, has probably had more than one sleepless night wondering whether South Africa’s plan to revamp five stadiums and build five new ones was an ambition too far. Whispers that the 2010 World Cup may have to be shifted to an emergency destination, such as England or Germany, grew louder. But Soccer City will be finished next summer and ready to hold events in November 2009, by which time the other nine stadiums should be up and running, too.

In addition, the final rail lines and buses will be in commission and ready to carry the 500,000 fans expected at the ten World Cup venues, the end of an epic investment programme on a scale never seen in Africa. South Africa will have spent about 600 billion rands (about £400 million) on transport, construction and infrastructure by the time the first ball is kicked.

All spent on a dream that a World Cup can transform a nation. Perhaps it is just fanciful, as Becker believes, but the regeneration is transforming swaths of South Africa’s poorest suburbs and the legacy is already here as each rough clay pitch is replaced by artificial turf and soccer schools, and thousands of poor children, for the first time in their lives, kick footballs that fly straight and true.

South Africa is already enjoying the regeneration and the legacy. Now it just wants to fulfil its dream of a peaceful and prosperous World Cup.

Spent force

100,000: Construction jobs created

80,000: Jobs created in the hospitality industry

500,000: Overseas fans expected in South Africa

£400m: Spending on national infrastructure

£85m: Spending on security

£1bn: Expected spending by World Cup visitors

£13m: Spending on generators to provide stadium electricity

Woodward backs England

Kevin Eason

Sir Clive Woodward believes that Fabio Capello can emulate his feat in rugby union by taking England to victory in 2010. Woodward, head coach of the England side who won the World Cup in 2003, says that Capello’s team have the experience and ability to win and that the conditions in a wintry South Africa could favour them.

“It is looking as though England have all the major points covered,” he said. “The average age of the squad will be right, and the experience. But more than that, for the first time in a long time with England, the players look more confident. Fabio Capello has been able to take players who have been so good for their clubs and get them to perform for their country.”

Although Soccer City in Johannesburg — where the World Cup final will be played on July 11, 2010 — is 1,700 metres above sea level, temperatures will be cool and the pitches could be heavy, conditions familiar to English players, according to Woodward.

“They should feel comfortable,” he said. “It would be unbelievable to see England win the World Cup in South Africa. I can’t wait because I feel that this England team under Fabio Capello has a real chance.”

PUBLICATION: www.timesonline.co.uk
AUTHOR: Kevin Eason
DATED: 27th November 2008