Thursday, February 11, 2010

Welcome to the World Cup

Recent discussions on sporting events and politicians reminded me – as if our newspapers don’t do enough of that – that the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa is now little more than 100 days away. Let me start by saying that I’m in favour of soccer, and think that it’s wonderful that this will be the World Cup’s first time in Africa, and in South Africa at that. Nelson mandela was released from prison 20 years ago today, so the tournament takes place only twenty years after a time when no one would play sport against South Africa let alone in South Africa. Soccer is an extremely popular sport here, going back to the days when cricket and rugby – our other sporting loves – were regarded as the bastions of white supremacy and thus avoided by the majority. (Mandela, remarkably, set that aside and used rugby as a lever to help unify the country, as Stanley described in a recent post). When the South Africa team qualified for the World Cup in 2002, suddenly it was soccer that became the unifying sport.

What happened after that? Politics took over. First the 2006 event became the centre of contention. South Africa made an open and well-argued case to host the event, and believed it was in the bag. When the final vote was held, the celebrations were ready for kick-off. Suddenly the representative from New Zealand decided to break ranks and vote for Germany. No doubt he had his reasons, but no one will ever discover what they were. South Africa was devastated. Once again Africa had been rejected by the world as the dark continent with no future, unable to stand on the world stage, etc., etc. There were grumbles about Eurocentricity, hints about racism. So what had been a fair and open process now became a scramble for political correctness. Clearly South Africa couldn’t be promised the 2010 World Cup without the proper process being followed, neither could Germany be deprived of its fair win in 2006, but some political formula had to be found. It was. It was agreed by the executive that “regions” which had not hosted the World Cup before should be given preference in the next round. Apart from a few abortive efforts from other African countries, South Africa was a shoe-in. No open process required, thank you.

The new Greenpoint Stadium in Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background

Since then a few problems have emerged. Despite paying oceans of money in US dollars to big name coaches, South Africa’s team has fallen on hard times. Without doubt it would have been eliminated in the qualifying rounds last year if it weren’t guaranteed a place in the tournament as host nation. There is much scrambling to avoid the team being an embarrassment. Time will tell. The stadiums are nearly complete and are impressive, but politics and budget run-overs will leave wounds to be licked for some time. Inevitably various political agendas jumped onto the band wagon. Not only were they carried along by the euphoria, but the message was that opposing anything with a World Cup tag to it was a shade anti-South African. Huge (and necessary) road improvement projects were planned and set in motion. The construction work resulted in traffic congestion and a jump in road accidents. Interestingly they were scheduled for completion in 2011, which left open the question of what the World Cup spectators would use for transport. Well, Sam Shilowa, then premier of Gauteng (the province in which Johannesburg lies) jumped into the breach. He proposed a rapid rail link from the airport to all the major centres – Pretoria, Sandton, Johannesburg. It would be called the Gautrain and would be the jewel in the crown of his premiership. (Although the suggestion of calling it the Shilowa Express was dropped.)

There are several interesting features of this rail development. First, the approved budget has been multiplied by a number that is no longer made public, but is probably higher than ten. Second, it was never accepted by any of the contractors that it would be possible to complete it by June 2010. (They have done a remarkable job, and with extra gold glinting in the tunnels, they will have at least the airport link to Sandton up and running in time.) Third, it has been calculated that a regular, efficient, and comfortable bus service linking the centres proposed above, could be run free forever on the capital invested in the Gautrain.

Gautrain at OR Tambo International Airport (from Gautrain website)

Then, of course, the tourist industry has come to the party in a big way. Suddenly prices are skyrocketing to the extent that people from Europe and the US – who normally find South Africa a big bargain – are complaining that it’s more expensive than Germany. Admittedly the international airfare plays a big part in that. Speaking of airfares, the local airlines are being investigated for price gauging during the World Cup period. Their defence is that they have to obtain extra planes and intensify their schedule to get everyone between the match centres for the games and then fly back empty. Ah, ha, think I, cheap flights if you travel in the opposite direction! Well, no. They would rather fly expensive empty seats, it seems.

For all that, I subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the World Cup is a great opportunity for South Africa and will have a lasting positive effect. Just don’t ask me to prove it. My advice is that if you are a soccer fan, come for the event. We will be ready, and we will be great hosts! If not, come anyway and enjoy the country. But come some other time.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Michael - Everything I have read about the choice of host for the Olympics suggests that winning is a mixed blessing. No country that has won the opportunity to be center stage for the games has come out ahead financially. I assume hosting the World Cup is just as poverty inducing.

    When so much money is involved, gouging is a mild word to describe what happens. But it will be wonderful for you to be part of the excitement of hosting the World Cup. While not nearly on the same level, Boston has hosted baseball's All Star game and the World Series. Even those who know nothing about the sport are pulled into the excitement.

    Leighton will be able to compare notes with you on how easy it is to run a country into the red and make people believe they have been lucky to have the opportunity.


  2. Beth,
    I think you are right. The argument is that the infrastructure stays, and that the media spotlight helps with tourism. No one expects to make a financial profit on the games!
    There is one big advantage for us: because we started this BEFORE the financial crisis, the jump in job creation helped ease that pain. So who knows?

  3. Very enlightening Michael. However, as a football fanatic, I know that as soon as the tournament starts I will be so wrapped in it all that all knowledge of cost, infrastructure etc will go out of the window, and I'll just revel in the spectacle. It's great it's gone to South Africa, where they love their sport. I think you're right; there'll be no repeat of the 1995 World Cup heroics from the host nation, which will at least spare us the Hollywood movie with Matt Damon!!