1 year until South Africa hosts soccer World Cup

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – The countdown has begun: One year from now South Africa will host the soccer World Cup, the largest sports show on earth.

Being the first African country to organize such a massive tournament will offer a unique opportunity for a sports-mad nation that less than 20 years ago was excluded from most international competitions because of sanctions against the apartheid regime.

The World Cup will be an immense logistical challenge for South Africa, which despite having the continent’s largest economy, is plagued by a chronic skills shortage, widespread poverty and one of the world’s highest crime rates.

An avowed soccer fan, Macdonald Magida is looking forward to some great matches next year, but the unemployed Soweto resident said he also hopes South Africa’s organization of the World Cup is about more than sport: It’s about showcasing Africa’s ability to the rest of the world.

“It’s a dream, my brother. In history, it’s the first time such a big tournament comes to Africa,” Magida, 42, said. “We, Africans, can also host such big events like the World Cup.”

In terms of popular appeal, the World Cup is by far the biggest sporting event in the world. Germany’s edition three years ago attracted more than 26 billion cumulative television viewers. By comparison, last year’s Beijing Olympic Games, whose duration was about half that of the month-long soccer tournament, were followed by 4.7 billion people.

The economic impact of the World Cup on the host country is considerable. The South African government plans to spend a total of $2.2 billion for stadiums and infrastructure, and President Jacob Zuma said last week that more than 400,000 jobs have already been created, which is significant in a country with 23.5 percent unemployment. Local organizers expect 450,000 overseas visitors for the event, and consulting firm Grant Thornton estimates that the economic benefit to South Africa could reach $7 billion.

South Africans expect the positive impact of the tournament they simply call “twenty-ten” to extend beyond the final on July 11, 2010, with projections that tourist numbers will increase in subsequent years. Airports, roads and public transportation are undergoing major upgrades. Paul Bannister, acting chief executive of International Marketing Council of South Africa, a public-private partnership, said the World Cup has the potential to give a positive boost the country’s image the way the end of apartheid did.

“The elections of 1994 really changed the way the world thought of South Africa,” Bannister said. “Effectively, 2010 has the opportunity to take it to the next level.”

While it hasn’t quite enjoyed the success of Africa's soccer powerhouses such as Nigeria or Cameroon, South Africa has a rich soccer culture. The South African league is the continent’s most prestigious along with Egypt’s, and Soweto’s two main teams, the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates, are extremely popular among the country’s black majority.

The national team, known as the Bafana Bafana (the boys) has underperformed in recent years and is ranked a lowly 72nd in the world by the Federation Internationale de Football Association, but a couple of good performances on the world stage could ignite the fans’ support.

“South African sports fans, generally speaking, are quite willing to watch it on TV and wait until something spectacular happens and then they all pour into the stadium,” said Carlos Amato, soccer columnist for the South African newspaper The Times.

Tickets nonetheless are selling like hot cakes, and preparations for the tournament are going well. Five of the 10 stadiums are ready, and South Africa is months ahead of where previous organizers Germany and Japan were at this stage, according to organizing committee spokesman Rich Mkhondo.

This month, South Africa is hosting the Confederations Cup, a smaller international soccer tournament that serves as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup that will allow organizers to test security procedures.

Concerns remain, however. South Africa’s murder rate, at 50 per day, is frighteningly high. World Cup organizers, however, are quick to point out that dozens of major sporting events have been hosted by South Africa in recent years, including a recent cricket tournament relocated from India, without any serious incidents. Another question is how some small cities will struggle to accommodate thousands of supporters with small airports and few hotel rooms.

How much ordinary South Africans will benefit from the World Cup remains one of the most contentious issues. Sophia Tlhagane, 42, sells fruits, sandwiches and hot meals to the construction workers of Soccer City, the stadium near Soweto that will host both the opening and final games of the World Cup. She said she barely makes enough profit to sustain her four children. She has had to move her little stand four times and has already been told she’ll have to vacate the site before the World Cup starts.

“The money we make here is not enough to put in the bank,” she said. “We’re in a situation of hand to pocket and pocket to hand.”

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