Driving into Cape Town from the airport, through the newly widened and redesigned expressways and past the ultra-modern Green Point Stadium with its retractable glass roof, the World Cup buzz is palpable even through the chill and the rain. There is a city on trial, a country on trial, a hugely polarizing issue—the relationship between developing nations and mega sports events—on trial. Also on trial are the ebullient Sepp Blatter, president of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa), and the similarly Teflon-coated Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, who have set up a mutual admiration society that, alas, has few other members.
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There has been much criticism of this tournament being awarded to South Africa, of an event as prestigious and complex as the World Cup being hostage to political expediency and open to the risks that come with it. Politics is no stranger, of course, to the World Cup—the 1986 World Cup was first scheduled to be held in Colombia, which pulled out in 1982; Brazil, the US and Canada all offered to play substitute but the tournament was handed to Mexico, despite the fact that it had hosted the World Cup as recently as 1970.
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On the face of it, it’s hard to ignore the obvious benefits the World Cup will bring to South Africa. My taxi driver—a dispossessed white Zimbabwean with no reason to defend this World Cup (and not just because he’s a cricket fan)—waxed about the broader roads, which cut peak driving time by half or more, and the busy-ness of his schedule over the next six weeks in what would otherwise have been the off season.
On the plane from Dubai—almost a global fans’ charter flight, with supporters of at least seven countries—there was a thrill of anticipation, and among a young expat South African couple returning home, a sense of pride.
The weight of expectation on South Africa is matched to some extent by the burden the World Cup carries vis-à-vis the hopes and aspirations of some of the other participant nations.
Consider North Korea, whose footballers have largely remained out of sight of the global community. All that will change dramatically on 15 June, when they play their first World Cup game in 44 years against Brazil to a global TV audience of several hundred million. The next day, Honduras face Chile, a match that makes up in regional politics what it lacks in global significance—Honduras were expelled, following last year’s coup, from the Organisation of American States, which is currently meeting in Peru to decide whether to re-admit the country. One of the staunchest advocates against Honduras’ re-admission is the OAS’ Chilean secretary general.
At the other end of the scale, the US has a point to prove too: that it should be taken seriously as a footballing nation. Its economy has long underwritten the World Cup—Fifa’s principal sponsors include Visa, Coke and McDonald’s—and in 1994 it hosted one of the most successful tournaments. Now its players want to join the party. Not so long ago the sport was a cottage industry, a family game that spawned the breed of soccer moms; now it is on the verge of an initial public offering (IPO), with the guarantors including Major League Soccer, the fledgling domestic tournament, and TV broadcaster ESPN—and the most famous celebrity endorsement in David Beckham.
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Ultimately, though, this is a tournament for Africa, which has provided some of the game’s most exciting players, from Eusebio (who played for Portugal but was born in Mozambique) in 1966 to some of today’s biggest stars, including Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba. This is a continent that has failed its own tryst with destiny—most African nations won their freedom around the time India did, but have not been able to translate their human and natural resources to anything on a similar scale. Not even in football—though the successes of Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea and the Milan teams have been built on African bedrock, the players’ home nations have struggled to do well at the World Cup. Pelé famously predicted an African winner by the turn of the millennium, but even adjusting for exaggeration, it looks a long way off the mark.
Now is the time for Africa to prove wrong all those who have doubted its ability to host a tournament that is efficient, safe and modern—and to show them that you can sacrifice a bit of Internet bandwidth for some colour and heart without losing anything in the process. That could well be the template for the future, by necessity if not by choice alone.
For South Africa, where rugby was the sport of the whites during apartheid, football has long been a symbol of revolution and unity; it can play the same role in a different context. There is every chance that Pelé’s dream of a World Cup-winner from Africa may not happen on the field, but it could happen off it.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo and is covering the World Cup for their sister website Soccernet.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com