Opinion: Why Zimbabwe missed out on World Cup benefits

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Robert Mugabe's attempt to associate Zimbabwe with the good publicity of the soccer World Cup in neighboring South Africa has proved fruitless.

There had been hopes that some of South Africa’s luster would rub off on Zimbabwe as it struggles to recover from a decade of misrule and political plunder. Mugabe, 86, referred to the South African team as “our boys” when he returned from the opening ceremony in Johannesburg.

But even the photo op failed to sparkle. Pictures of Zimbabwe's “first couple” in the Soccer City stadium showed a distinctly gloomy president and his equally unsmiling wife Grace.

This could have had something to do with reports that most of his entourage of 40 was turned away at the VIP stand. That included young Robert Junior, 17, who is being touted in Zimbabwe's state media as a potential sporting hero.

But the Mugabes could also have been frowning because of the weather. South Africa can experience bitterly cold winters and pictures of the Mugabes wrapped up against the elements and surrounded by what looked like nondescript regional officials wasn’t exactly the image of authority the veteran leader likes to project when calling on his neighbors.

Back home, Zimbabweans have been doing their best to join in the World Cup fun.“Fan parks” have sprung up all over Harare as entrepreneurs set up plasma TV screens and barbecue stands.

Most fans favored England, where Zimbabwe’s vast diaspora of some five million is based, until it was sent packing by Germany.

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They then switched their loyalty to Brazil which had earlier defeated Zimbabwe’s Warriors in a friendly match before the World Cup in Harare. The state media intriguingly billed that game “How Zim won the World Cup.” But the fans here are accustomed to such excesses in the official press. They have largely ignored the propaganda and have made the most of saturation television coverage of the tournament beamed up from South Africa.

Freddy Tafara in Harare’s Mabvuku township has experienced a sudden spike in his popularity ratings. He has a television set.

“Now everybody wants to know me,” he gripes. That means a full house every evening when the big matches are played.

“They will all be gone after July 11,” he said wistfully, referring to the date of the final match and closing ceremony. “They are welcome but they must bring their own bottles.”

Despite popular enthusiasm, Zimbabwe’s bid to ride on the back of this huge sporting extravaganza has proved disappointing. Most of the schemes to improve local stadiums and other infrastructure fizzled out. Hotels put on hold plans for expansion while fleets of new taxis were unable to find customers.

Much of this can be ascribed to poor planning and a shortage of capital. Zimbabwe is broke and depends on donor support. South Africa next door was able to tap into vast resources including bank loans, state subsidies and engineering expertise.

South Africa also had good planning. Spanking new high-speed trains run every few minutes to Johannesburg airport, impressive new stadiums have mushroomed across the country and hotels record full occupancy rates, even with inflated prices. A high speed rail link from Harare’s Chitungwiza dormitory town to the city center has failed to materialize after Mugabe first mooted the project 20 years ago.

Zimbabwe proved unable to siphon the army of international transient fans who followed their teams to South Africa to come north to its secure and well-stocked national parks. The country’s premier resort, Victoria Falls, did attract tourists — but only to the Zambian side.

The central problem is one of perception. Whatever the quality of Zimbabwe’s patched-up roads and scenic resorts, visitors to South Africa saw its northern neighbor as a rogue state with leaders who denounce the West and lock up civic activists.

This proved to be less than seductive.