JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — By all measures, South Africa is passing its big test.
FIFA, soccer’s governing body, took a gamble when it awarded the organization of the 2010 World Cup — the most watched sporting event in the world — to South Africa in 2004. The tournament had never been hosted in Africa, and unlike recent hosts such as Germany, Japan and South Korea, South Africa is a developing country beset with many problems ranging from high crime rates to poor education levels.
The ranks of doubters grew as the tournament approached, prompting calls for a "plan B" — an alternate host country that could take over at the last minute if South Africa failed to adequately prepare for the soccer tournament.
The World Cup will come to an end Sunday with the final in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, but already South Africa has proved its critics wrong.
South Africa is on track to surpass 2006 host Germany in terms of ticket sales and international visitors figures, said Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s secretary general. If the trend continues until Sunday it will be “a perfect World Cup,” Valcke said.
“We are beyond all expectations,” Valcke told reporters. “South Africa will become the plan B of any future World Cup.”
Congratulations were not always in order for the hosts. Just a year ago, only four of 10 World Cup stadiums were ready for the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal competition that took place here. Construction of key transportation schemes was running late, and some of the country’s powerful unions threatened to disrupt the tournament with strikes.
Paramount among the concerns was one that South Africa could only manage but not eradicate. The country’s murder rate, one of the highest in the world at more than 50 per day, did little to entice visitors to South Africa.
John Hutchcraft, a diehard United States fan, said he hesitated a bit to come to the World Cup because of the crime situation. But Hutchcraft, who attended the World Cup’s previous edition, said he really wanted to come to South Africa. Going to Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and even visiting a township, he had “zero problems,” he said.
“It’s been nothing but great,” Hutchcraft said. “Everybody has helped us to go where we wanted to go.”
Few security-related incidents have been reported during the World Cup, and the experience of fans interviewed has been overwhelmingly positive.
With more than 30 billion cumulative viewers and nearly 500,000 visitors, the World Cup is a marketer’s dream for the host nation. In South Africa’s case, the goal was to present the country as an attractive destination both for tourists and investors, said Miller Matola, the chief executive of the International Marketing Council of South Africa, an organization tasked with promoting the country abroad.
“It created an opportunity to have the world look at us in a different way, and it has helped dispel misconceptions,” Matola said.
The global economic downturn raised fears that many fans would stay home, but based on travel statistics for June, organizers are now confident the total number of World Cup visitors will reach the 450,000 figure initially anticipated. More important, many of these visitors have vowed to come back, Matola said.
“The goodwill that has been unlocked cannot be measured in monetary terms,” Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said recently.
In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, a strike in the rail sector crippled the country’s exports, a reminder of the power of South Africa’s unions. Unhappy with working conditions, security guards left their posts at several stadiums during the early stages of the tournament, but they were seamlessly replaced by police officers.
A large strike at power utility Eskom, which would have had potentially devastating consequences for the World Cup and beyond, was averted through negotiations, which the ruling African National Congress party said “clearly illustrates that all the parties involved are unquestionably patriotic and supportive to South Africa’s current hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”
While strikes did not disrupt the World Cup, they highlighted the precariousness of South Africa’s job landscape. Despite the upcoming soccer tournament, the country lost 79,000 jobs in the first quarter. Jaco Kleynhans, spokesman for trade union Solidarity, said that he expects a few jobs to be created in the tourism sector but that the World Cup won’t solve South Africa’s job crisis.
“It’s a great launching pad, the World Cup,” Kleynhans said. “But nothing more.”
Perhaps the best indicator that the tournament has gone smoothly is that most of the off-field action has been dominated by the antics of the French team and that now-infamous plastic horn, the vuvuzela.
Hutchcraft said he liked the vuvuzela from the start, but that it took a little longer for his friend Denise Suhr to get used to the trumpet’s monotone sound.
“I wore earplugs the first two matches,” Suhr said. “I feel better [about them] now.”