x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

World Cup stadium legacy takes a back seat

Although beautiful, the long-term viability of some of the venues staging World Cup games is uncertain.

A bicycle rider performs tricks outside the Mbombela Stadium, in Nelspruit, South Africa. The stadium in the Mpumalanga province is to host several matches in the FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament which gets under way June 11.
A bicycle rider performs tricks outside the Mbombela Stadium, in Nelspruit, South Africa. The stadium in the Mpumalanga province is to host several matches in the FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament which gets under way June 11.

With five new stadiums and five existing grounds refurbished and ready to welcome the world, Sebastien Berger says although beautiful, the long-term viability of some of the structures is uncertain.

A giant African cooking pot stands on the plain between Johannesburg and Soweto, rising from the highveld plateau. Soccer City is the biggest stadium in Africa, the fifth-largest football ground in the world, and it is a breathtaking sight. Designed in the shape of a calabash pot, it is covered in brown, orange and yellow panels, intended to evoke the flames of a fire, with a white roof representing the foam of the home-brewed beer traditionally made in the container. Inside, more than 90,000 orange seats - a colour that is a happy coincidence for the Dutch firm that built it - sweep away from the lush green pitch in five curving, towering layers that will contain and reflect the supporters' cries of anguish and joy; truly a cauldron of atmosphere. Costing ZAR3.4 billion (Dh1.66bn) and using 80,000 cubic metres of concrete, 9,000 tonnes of reinforcred steel, 7,000 tonnes of roof steel and 11 million bricks - it references Johannesburg's past as a mining town, with the players' tunnel, a rising incline that will do nothing to dull the pain of defeat for the losers who have to trudge up it, lined in bare concrete and metal struts, akin to a mine shaft.

"It's incredible," said Ravenesh Subroyal, 36, an auditor, as he toured it earlier this month. "Just being here, it's a feeling of absolute exhilaration. "This means being part of an international community, not being a small bit down in Africa. It makes you feel a lot closer to the world, almost a feeling of greatness." It is also a marker of how much South Africa has changed since the advent of democracy in 1994 - the funeral of Chris Hani, the chief of staff of the African National Congress's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, was held at the site, then known as FNB Stadium, after he was murdered by a white supremacist in 1993 and the country stood on the brink of civil war.

"We are diverse, our cultures, but when we come together we are South Africans and that's our pride," said Shawn van der Merwe, who works for the mining giant Anglo-American and was also on the tour. Five entirely new stadiums have been built for the tournament, and another five refurbished. It has been a vast undertaking, and not without its troubles. Work on the Green Point stadium in Cape Town was delayed for a year because of protests by environmentalists, strikes have been a regular feature of the construction, and when the Local Organising Committee (LOC) took journalists on a tour of the facilities to mark 100 days until the tournament started, they were confronted with bare earth where the Nelspruit pitch was supposed to be, after the grass failed to germinate properly.

It has since been relaid twice, but officials say it is now, just in time, one of the best surfaces that will be used. Nelspruit was also the scene of protests over its stadium, which in reference to its proximity to the Kruger National Park has its roof supports shaped to resemble giraffes, and its seats in black-and-white zebra stripes. In an area where many residents live without running water and electricity, two schools were evicted to make room for it, and despite repeated protests, work to replace them only began last year.

There are also questions over whether the grounds will become spectacular but unprofitable white elephants after the World Cup circus begins to pack its bags and move out on July 12. Soccer City itself is expected to be used by one of Johannesburg's major football teams, most likely the Kaizer Chiefs, as a home base, and as a venue for internationals, pop and rock concerts and other events, so that it is most likely to prove viable in the long term.

But Greg Fredericks, head of the LOC's legacy programme, said as far as he was aware no long-term tenants had yet been signed up for any of the new stadiums, even though the facilities "are really something to behold". "These are things that are being worked on by the football authorities and by the local authorities," he said. Green Point is a particular concern. Its location is spectacular, nestling to one side of the city centre with Table Mountain as a backdrop, giving broadcasters an iconic image.

But Capetonians are not avid football fans, and the local rugby union side, Western Province, who play in the Super 14 international championship as the Cape Town Stormers, have shown no inclination to abandon their traditional home, Newlands, which they own, to switch to paying rent instead. Initially the city authorities had wanted to upgrade an existing stadium in the suburb of Athlone in the Cape Flats, a relatively deprived area with 18 per cent unemployment and much more accessible to the majority of the black population, who form the bulk of football supporters, and where it might have led to local regeneration. But they were overruled by Fifa and the national government.

Similarly, Durban's Moses Mabhida ground, topped with a graceful arch and possibly the most architecturally impressive of all the stadiums, looks unlikely to become a new home for rugby's Natal Sharks. Port Elizabeth does not have a Super 14 team, and in the north of the country, Polokwane and Nelspruit do not even have top-flight football clubs. "As preparations unfolded, it became apparent that the chosen locations for stadia were not necessarily the best-placed to serve the community from financial, environmental or social and sporting perspectives," wrote Collette Schulz Herzenberg, of the Institute for Security Studies in a paper on the tournament.

Such concerns, though, are being relegated to the background for now. On the Soccer City tour, Van der Merwe said: "It's going to prove to the world that South Africa is a fantastic place to be. I grew up here, I've been here my whole life and it's getting better every day." sports@thenational.ae