Almost every media outfit around the world last Thursday reported the story of how a world cup photographer was held at gun point on Wednesday, during a pre-dawn burglary at a lodge used by journalists covering Portugal and Spain, at this year’s World Cup. The story was expected to underline one of the persistent fears about holding the most important sporting event in the world, in South Africa in the first place: the fear of crime. Reuters reported on Thursday, that three Greek players had money stolen from their hotel and on the same day, Chinese journalists were robbed. It was as if the deployment of 41, 000 special-trained policemen did not mean much. But even in giving the hosting right to South Africa, FIFA knew that it was not likely to get a world cup tournament which did not reflect the reality of South Africa as a country still on the path of healing, after decades of apartheid.
The same Reuters report went on to state that whatever problem there was in South Africa, would not “dent South Africans’ frenzied excitement as they revelled in the realization that the World Cup many said they could not organize was about to take off”. The most iconic presence is the Vuvuzela trumpet that is everywhere and joyous crowds of South Africans in their national colours and the country, as well as the world, has been boosted by reports that a very frail Nelson Mandela was to attend the opening ceremony of the tournament. If South Africans themselves had a sore point in the lead to the tournament, it was the shape of their national team, Bafana Bafana, which was notoriously incompetent as a team in recent years; but in the hands of the experienced Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Pereira, seemed to have turned the corner at the very right moment. It posted an unbeaten run of 12 games including a recent defeat of Denmark and that has lifted hope to a high notch in South African hearts about the possibilities of their team going far in the tournament; something that will certainly electrify the championship.
What cannot be taken away from the rainbow nation is the first class set of stadiums they have constructed and the effort made to uplift the state of infrastructure in the country, generally. Since it earned the hosting right to host the “African” World Cup, South Africa has spent about 40bn rand on stadiums, transport infrastructure and upgrading airports and the tournament is estimated to add 0.5% to the country’s GDP in 2010, while 370,000 visitors are expected for the event. South Africans have been talking about a legacy of tourism, investment, development and greater racial harmony after the teams and visitors from around the world must have returned to their different countries. Television images of the last days leading to the commencement of the tournament have shown effusive crowds of black and white South Africans united in pride at the fact that the attention of the world was focused on their country. It is the best of times for a country that for a long time was often used to the worst of times! And around the African continent there is the shared pride that the continent can host such a major event that will take the spotlight away from the common currency of African media coverage: wars, famine, corrupt governments and HIV/AIDS.
The 90.000 capacity Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg was re-designed to look like an African calabash and it is the locus of the opening and closing ceremonies of the fiesta: the spectacular musical fest that drew 1,581 performers from around the world; a 40 minute opening ceremony and the roll call of dignitaries from around the world, along with the fact that the World Cup has a global television audience running into hundreds of millions in 215 countries, all make the African World Cup very unique. An equally effusive Jacob Zuma, the South African president has been lapping up the entire build up to the opening of the World Cup. “South Africa has come alive” said Zuma “and will never be the same after this World Cup”. Zuma also hailed the role played by Nelson Mandela to secure the hosting right back in May 2004. “Nelson Mandela worked hard so that we could win the right to host this tournament. We dedicate this World Cup to him”. But he was not done. “There are a few moments that define a nation’s history. We stand on threshold of one as we draw closer and closer to Friday, 11 June, when the World Cup officially begins”.
A tournament that has been trailed by Afro-pessimistic doubts was bound to produce equally memorable sound AXbites and none more so than those coming for the tireless Danny Jordaan, the CEO of the LOC of the tournament. He spent the years after the hosting right has been granted, to prove that the event will be well hosted by an African country. “For me it will be a dream come true. It’s a great moment in the World Cup’s 80-year history”, said Jordaan. “People said no African country could ever deliver this event. But we are showing that we can’t just match what others have done but that we can do even better. Now the doubters are the believers”, added the LOC CEO. The note of optimism has also come from the highest authorities of FIFA, and the president himself, Sepp Blatter, who stood by South Africa at moments when the pessimists thought it could not have been successfully pulled off. “Everywhere, one can feel, I hope, this World Cup is very special, the first on African soil”, said Blatter. “We find ourselves in a position of indescribable anticipation. More importantly, this competition will prove that South Africa and the African continent in general, is capable of organizing an event of this magnitude”.
It is clear that we are entering a month of fascinating football, but there have been injuries to some very notable football stars too; stars that followers of the beautiful game would certainly have loved to watch in the tournament. Chelsea football team of London saw its three Michaels unable to participate: Michael Ballack of Germany; Michael Essien of Ghana and Nigeria’s Mikel Obi. Arjen Robben from the Nederlands had a hamstring strain; Nani of Portugal was the proverbial antelope that danced itself lame before the maiden dance and Rio Ferdinand, the England captain, had a freak injury which was an unwelcome icing to a season of injuries! But then, there are stars that will still leave wonderful memories for millions of fans: Wayne Rooney; Christian Ronaldo, Kaka, Lionel Messi; Carlos Tevez; Fernando Torres; Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o! But what about the African challenge? My heart is full of patriotic fervor, but my head is also wary; but the issue remains that we have a whole month for the world to enjoy the pleasures of the African continent; a whole month! As that television advertisement has repeatedly assured, it is a once in a life time of Africa-inspired pleasure! Please soak up the atmosphere!