South Africa succeeds with Confederations Cup

JOHANNESBURG — By successfully hosting the Confederations Cup, South Africa proved to the world that it is able to organize a major international soccer tournament, allaying fears that it will fail in staging the 2010 World Cup, the world’s most popular sporting event.

The Confederations Cup, which is now held every four years, is widely considered to be a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Never before had it been seen as more important than it was for South Africa, the first African country ever to hold both events.

While few doubted that a country like Germany — the organizer of the last World Cup — would be able to pull it off, South Africa has faced more scrutiny than perhaps any previous host, partly because of the country’s high crime rate, but also because of doubts over its infrastructure.

Overall, in the test run that is the Confederations Cup, South Africa performed reasonably well. Local fans provided a great atmosphere in stadiums despite a biting winter chill. Most importantly, the crime related to the tournament was almost nonexistent. Still, some problems did surface. Public transportation in Johannesburg was far from adequate and attendance at some of the games was poor.

Sepp Blatter, the president of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer’s governing body, worked tirelessly to bring both the Confederations Cup and the World Cup to the African continent, which has given so much to the world of soccer without reaping much in terms of financial rewards.

“We are here not only to honor Africa. It’s also justice to Africa, to African football,” Blatter said right before the opening of the tournament two weeks ago. “Let’s go and trust a little bit, trust these people.”

Two weeks later, after all the goals and spectators had been counted, Blatter was all business. Without giving much detail over his calculations, he gave local organizers a 7.5 mark on a 10-point scale, saying that logistics still needed work but that the hospitality had been remarkable. “At the end of the Confederations Cup, with the experiences we have made, I should be a very satisfied and very happy president of FIFA,” Blatter said.

The Confederations Cup adopted its current format in 1997. The tournament counts eight participants, including the host country, the reigning world champion and the champions of other continents. The lineup this year offered some appetizing first-round clashes such as Italy-Brazil, but it also provided for some mismatched encounters like the thrashing of lowly New Zealand by European champion Spain.

Depending on their standing, teams approach the competition differently. For countries like Iraq or Egypt that rarely qualify for the World Cup, the Confederations Cup is a unique opportunity to shine and for players to catch the eye of rich European clubs. For the sport’s heavyweights, the tournament is as much a competition in its own right as a tune-up for next year’s real thing.

One team that had huge expectations on its shoulders despite having already qualified for the World Cup was host South Africa. Ranked only 72 in the world, Bafana Bafana (the boys) picked up only one win in the tournament but offered credible opposition to giants Brazil and Spain, earning the respect of many fans along the way.

The major surprise of the tournament was the United States, however. After a slow start, the U.S. team stunned favorite Spain before narrowly succumbing to Brazil in the final.
Beyond the disappointment of the defeat, U.S. coach Bob Bradley said that he had been impressed by the locals’ passion for the sport and the warmth of their welcome.

“The experience in South Africa for our players has been very special,” Bradley said. “We’ve been treated incredibly well everywhere we’ve gone.”

Gladys Gailey, the secretary of a local Bafana Bafana fan club and the owner of a sports bar in Johannesburg, was a bit more critical. While Gailey, who attended three games including the opening match and the final, praised the form displayed by her beloved team and rejoiced over the increased business at her bar, she complained about the inadequate transportation. She said that she had to wait for an hour for buses outside the stadium and that food stalls ran out of supplies. “It was chaos,” Gailey said. “It was very chaotic.”

Many fans arrived late at games — or did not show up at all — and transportation plans suffered a major setback before the tournament when angry taxi drivers forced the government to put a new bus system on hold.

But the most serious concern of all — security — proved overblown. Only one high-profile incident — a mysterious one in which members of the Egyptian team were apparently robbed in their hotel rooms — occurred during the tournament.

What will remain from this Confederations Cup is the blaring, buzzing noise of vuvuzelas — the plastic, trumpet-like long horns beloved of South African soccer fans that when blown together sound like a giant swarm of bees. The Confederations Cup has been one of the best displays of the Rainbow Nation that South Africa has shown so far.

“I think this event has produced the most diverse audience in any sporting event in this country, and that is a huge contribution that this Confederations Cup has made,” said Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the organizing committee.

Read more about soccer:

Brazilian soccer: a guide

Can Maradona come back? Again?

Eastern German problems play out on the pitch