JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Four years after the World Cup, Soccer City stadium stands out against the drab skyline of south Johannesburg, a multi-colored mosaic of steel and glass set against the yellow-dust mine dumps of a century-old city built, literally, on gold.
On many weekends, the 94,000-seater venue that hosted key games during the 2010 tournament is pumping, either with the roars of soccer fans or chant of concert-goers, an example of enduring, direct returns accrued by host nation South Africa.
The stadium, which underwent a 1.5 billion rand ($150 million) facelift for the event, comfortably pays its own way, according to its website, with fixtures ranging from Soweto soccer derbies to concerts by the likes of Lady Gaga and U2.
In December, it hosted a mass memorial for late anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, and last month was the venue for a massive rally by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to crown their election campaign.
However, Soccer City stands out in another, crucial way.
Of the nine other venues built or renovated for the World Cup to the tune of 10 billion rand - a quarter of the overall budget - all are in the red, unable to attract regular top sporting clashes or international rock stars.
The bill for their up-keep falls on cash-strapped municipalities, a salutary lesson for Brazil, where hundreds of thousands have protested, sometimes violently, against state spending on this year’s tournament, which starts on June 12.
Brazil’s anti-World Cup movement argues that the $11.7 billion earmarked for Cup-related spending - three times South Africa’s budget, even though only $7 billion has actually been disbursed - would have been better used on hospitals, schools and public transport.
Many in South Africa, the continent’s wealthiest country but still a middle income country, feel the same way.
“If 50 per cent of the collective resources deployed around the World Cup were deployed around these critical issues, I think the country would have made a big, big leap forward,” said Achille Mbembe, a social scientist at Johannesburg’s Wits University.
The Nelson Mandela Bay stadium in the decaying industrial city of Port Elizabeth supports the case.
The current tenants of the state-of-the-art 47,000-seat, 2.1 billion rand venue are the Southern Kings, a second-tier rugby side excluded last year from the lucrative Super XV competition that includes teams from Australia and New Zealand.
The Port Elizabeth region has also not had a team in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) since 2006, and even if a local side clawed its way into the big time, the turnstiles will not be overworked - the average PSL game attracts crowds of just 7,000.
Since it opened its doors, the stadium has attracted only 125,000 visitors every year, only slightly more than the record 94,700 who turned up on one day at Soccer City to watch South African rugby side Amabokoboko play New Zealand in 2010.
Its owners decline to reveal annual up-keep costs, which may be as high as 65 million rand, according to two university studies, but they concede that it runs at a loss of 13 million rand a year - a bill that the municipality has to pick up.
With so many other social demands in one of South Africa’s poorest regions, turning it round is a low priority.
“Sports development competes for resources with other service delivery priorities, like sanitation, electricity, economic development and waste management,” said council spokesman Mthubanzi Mniki.
‘FIRE OF FAILURE’
In their final report on the 2010 tournament, FIFA and the South African Football Association (SAFA) urged people to focus on “non-tangible” benefits such as an improved national team and the rebranding of a country plagued by violent crime.
Whereas tourism numbers have boomed since the tournament, a reflection of both South Africa’s burnished international image and - in the last 18 months - its weak currency, the sporting benefits are debatable.
The national soccer team, Bafana Bafana, failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and are currently languishing at 65 in the world rankings, having slid from a short-lived post-World Cup high of 38th in 2011.
Since 2010, the side has also struggled in the bi-annual African Nations Cup, qualifying for only one tournament by virtue of being the host. The under-20 and under-23 teams have also failed to get in to any major events.
There have been ructions off the pitch too, with in-fighting in the SAFA boardroom, allegations of pre-World Cup match-fixing and a scandal over the spending of 48 million rand of FIFA money.
SAFA officials say, however, that the worst is behind them.
“It’s been a slow process. Last year was difficult for SAFA generally as we were going through elections and uncertainty in leadership,” said SAFA development head Robin Petersen.
“It was quite clear that we weren’t going from success to success. We had to go through the fire of failure.”
‘BUNCH OF LOSERS’
South Africa’s post-World Cup development plan is nothing if not ambitious - propelling Bafana Bafana into the world top 20 by 2020 - but with a population of 53 million people and more resources than most African countries it could be achievable.
There are also signs that the 450 million rand paid by FIFA in 2012 into the World Cup Legacy Trust - the post-tournament soccer development fund - is kicking in to gear.
A national database that goes live in July will track all of South Africa’s 2 million registered footballers and SAFA has established country-wide under-13 and under-15 leagues for boys and girls. It also plans to train 10,000 coaches a year.
For Bafana Bafana manager Gordon Igesund - the 17th coach since South Africa’s admission to international football in 1992 - the changes were too long in coming.
Igesund got his marching orders as national coach this week after presiding over a string of lackluster performances and goal-less draws that prompted sports minister Fikile Mbalula to brand the side “a bunch of losers”.
Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky