x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

South Africa rolls out the welcome mat

A look at the struggles South Africa has faced to prepare for the World Cup and what the long-term benefits will be for the country.

Fans from Johannesburg celebrate the 30-day countdown to the start of the World Cup at the Ghandi Square in Johannesburg.
Fans from Johannesburg celebrate the 30-day countdown to the start of the World Cup at the Ghandi Square in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG // When tickets for the World Cup went on over-the-counter sale, Nerisha Singh was one of the first in the queue. She and hundreds of others camped overnight at the ticket centre to secure a seat at the second-biggest sporting event on the planet after the Olympic Games.

Singh, a 32-year-old lawyer from Pretoria, said her earliest memory of the football's showpiece event is the 1986 final between West Germany and Argentina held in Mexico, when she was a small girl living in Durban. At the time, apartheid South Africa was isolated and subject to sporting sanctions. With no broadcasting deal, the country was excluded even from seeing the event on television, let alone participating.

But her father's cousin, who was working in Britain at the time, sent them a video of the match. "I remember watching the tape over and over and over again with my dad," she said as she waited for her chance to buy him tickets for the Brazil-Portugal match and one of the semi-finals, both to be held in the Singhs' home city. "That's how we used to watch it. That's why the World Cup coming to South Africa is so special. I'm so excited I can't wait.

"It's an amazing thing for South Africa to finally be placed on the world stage." Even before the country won the right to host the event six years ago, sceptics expressed doubts that it could carry it off. But ZAR34 billion (Dh16.6 billion) of government money later, five new stadiums have been built and another five refurbished and transport facilities put in place,. Thousands of volunteers and police have been trained the latter being particularly vital in a country with some of the highest crime rates in the world.

There have been controversies, construction strikes and concerns along the way, with Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, at one point saying he had "a Plan B tucked away at the back of a drawer". But with four weeks to go until kick-off, 90 per cent of the tickets have been sold, the last boxes are being ticked and the excitement is building. Workers are putting the finishing touches to the facilities in Soccer City, the vast stadium between Johannesburg and the sprawling township of Soweto that will host the opening match and the championship final.

Others are completing the first link of the Gautrain, a high-speed railway between Johannesburg's OR Tambo international airport and the city, a system that has been years in the planning and is due to open a mere three days before the start of play. Both Fifa and the local organising committee are confident everything will be ready in time. The solid gold trophy that will go to the winning team is being taken on a nationwide tour, having been welcomed to the country by Nelson Mandela.

Advertising hoardings have been proclaiming "Ke Nako" "It's time" in Zulu for months, but now a blanket of World Cup and football-themed stories and publicity is sweeping the media. Final Countdown, the anthemic guitar rock track of the 1980s from the Swedish band Europe, has been rolled out for a television advertisement which climaxes with hundreds of South Africans of all colours gathering to hold up torches beneath arriving aircraft spelling out "Welcome to our home bru (brother)."

In terms of sporting performance, the national team Bafana Bafana "The Boys" rank a lowly 90th in the world, below even the likes of Haiti and Panama and a far cry from the South African rugby side, the Springboks, who are the world champions. Even so, a telecommunications company is declaring, "We believe in you Bafana". Another clip describes the tournament as "The biggest event Africa has ever seen", and the topic dominates radio talk shows.

For once, the hype is justified. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the World Cup to the country's authorities, who see it as an opportunity to re-define South Africa in the eyes of the world. Jacob Zuma, the president, has mentioned it in virtually every one of his set-piece speeches since his inauguration in May 2009. Commentators have compared it to the Beijing Olympics of 2008 in terms of its significance for the host nation, and senior figures are determined it will be a resounding success.

But while in China's case the Olympic sporting festival was the icing on the cake of its economic boom, which had already irreversibly changed perceptions of the country, in South Africa the World Cup is the cake itself. Even though South Africa has been a multi-racial democracy for 16 years, perceptions of the past linger, said Greg Fredericks, head of the office of the chief executive of the local organising committee.

He pointed out that abroad, the country's name evoked "just one word - it was 'apartheid'." "Our leaders believe it was necessary to rebrand our country, to give it a new image," he said. "Africa is very much seen as the Dark Continent. Afro-pessimism is very prevalent throughout the world. This World Cup will definitely help to change perceptions of South Africa, of the southern African region and the African continent."

The live foreign audience will likely be lower than previously expected. Grant Thornton Strategic Services, a consultancy, has scaled back its estimate of overseas visitors coming for the matches from 450,000 to 373,000 in the face of the global financial crisis. In a country where around 20 per cent of households have no access to running water, and even more do not have electricity, legitimate questions have been asked about whether the money might have been better directed elsewhere.

But Gillian Saunders, the principal of the Grant Thornton company, said the infrastructure investments made in South Africa would pay off for years to come, and the country would benefit from the matches reaching a total television audience of 26 billion people on average, every man, woman and child on the planet seeing four games each. "If it weren't for the World Cup, we would never have had this sort of profiling," she said. "Unless there is some sort of major catastrophe during the event there will be long term benefits for South Africa."

While the official racial splits of apartheid are no more, its legacy remains stark in the deep socio-economic divides in the country, but South Africa is seen at its most united best at times of sporting endeavour, most notably when blacks, whites and others celebrated together after the Springboks took the world crown in rugby union still a predominantly white sport 15 years ago. If all goes well, the tournament could become a month-long party that marks a giant leap away from the past.

Now after all the preparations, all that remains is to carry it off. sports@thenational.ae