With just over 100 days to go before the start on June 11th of this year’s Fifa World Cup, South Africa is ready. Ten spanking new or upgraded football stadiums await the arrival of some 3m fans. The country’s main airports have been extended and modernised. A security plan, drawn up in co-operation with the Americans, is all set. The finishing touches are being put to a whole new network of urban freeways.
But is the world ready for South Africa? From the moment South Africa was chosen six years ago as the first African country to host the world’s most important sporting event after the Olympics, doubts were expressed about its ability to do so. With all the main infrastructure now in place, most critics have been silenced. But not all. The South Africans are particularly upset by some of the negative coverage in the British and German press. Uli Hoeness, president of Bayern Munich, one of Germany’s top clubs, was recently reported as claiming that, deep down, Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, realised that giving the Cup to South Africa was “one of the biggest wrong decisions he ever made”. He himself would definitely not be going, Mr Hoeness said.
Security has now overtaken a lack of preparedness as main source of concern—particularly in the light of last month’s terrorist attack on the Togolese national team during the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola that left three dead. In vain did South Africa point out that the attack had taken place thousands of miles away and that it had no home-grown terrorist groups of its own. The incident nevertheless put a spotlight on the instability of the African continent as a whole as well as South Africa’s own reputation as the world leader in violent crime, with 50 murders, 100 rapes, 500 violent assaults and 700 burglaries reported every day.
As well as the fear of crime, the strong rand (up by more than a quarter against the dollar over the past year) and the exorbitant prices being charged by profiteering locals are also putting off fans. Some hotels are charging up to four times their normal rates, while several domestic airline companies are being investigated by the country’s Competition Commission after jacking up their fares to ridiculous levels during the tournament. The government has warned the local tourist industry against trying to “make a fast buck”, pointing out that anyone feeling he has been fleeced is unlikely to return.
Ticket prices are also high, ranging from $80 to a first-round match to $900 for the final, and sales—particularly to local fans—have been sluggish. Of the 2.1m tickets (of a total of 3m) so far sold, only 11% have been bought by South Africans despite their being offered special cut-price tickets of just 140 rand. But even that is a lot for most South Africans, 40% of whom live below the poverty line. Furthermore, although immensely proud to see their country hosting such a world-class event, many are much less enthused about their own national team, Bafana Bafana, ranked just 81st in the Fifa world rankings. Unlike previous World Cups, when games involving the host nation’s team are usually snapped up first, thousands of tickets for Bafana matches are still going begging. Indeed, there are fears that South Africa could become the first World Cup venue where local fans are outnumbered by foreigners.
In his New Year’s message to the nation, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, predicted that 2010 would be “the most important year in our country since 1994”, when the first democratic
elections were held. “Together…we must make this one of the most successful projects we have ever undertaken as a nation.” That sounds like a very tall order.