JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The World Cup will have the globe’s largest audience glued to their tv screens for a month from Friday but soccer’s greatest trophy means much more than that for South Africa and an entire continent.
Racial reconciliation, the affirmation of an often troubled post-apartheid nation, future investment and tourism are just a few of the issues at stake in Africa’s largest economy.
African leaders believe that this tournament, a massive logistical undertaking, will enable the continent to overturn stereotypes of tragedy, disaster and failure and prove that it is a vibrant can-do region with a positive future.
President Jacob Zuma said the World Cup is “the single greatest opportunity we have ever had to showcase our diversity and potential to the world. We must rise and tell the story of a continent which is alive with possibilities.”
Of course, the opposite could also be true. If the tournament fails, and particularly if it is marred by major violence or organizational chaos, it could do significant damage to the continent’s image.
Although most signs are good for a joyful and uniquely African spectacular, there are plenty of areas of concern to keep organizers awake at night, particularly security and the country’s frighteningly high crime rate, and transport, always a possible Achilles heel.
At least 15 people were injured on Sunday when fans tried to force their way into a township stadium to watch a warmup between Nigeria and North Korea, while FIFA’s media transport shuttles have been a chaotic mess so far.
Ever since Pretoria won the right six years go to stage the World Cup for the first time in Africa, the pessimists have never been quiet and the organizers have had to endure a sea of negative reporting ranging from serious to absurd.
Prize for the latter goes to Britain’s tabloid press which has variously reported that the streets are full of machete wielding gangs or that England’s team, camped near the sleepy town of Rustenburg, are in danger from an army of deadly snakes including one that could kill two whole World Cup teams.
Most of the negative reporting, including suggestions FIFA would need to move the tournament at the last minute, have been discredited, although together with the global recession it is blamed for cutting foreign fan numbers from an estimated 450,000 to 370,000 or less.
The 10 stadiums were ready early, unlike in many other host nations in the past, and six of them -- five built from scratch and one extensively expanded and rebuilt -- are magnificent arenas standing comparison with any in the world.
These stadiums, like the rest of the World Cup, affirm the confidence and ability of an often troubled nation 16 years after the end of apartheid.
After months of skepticism and apathy South Africans seem finally to believe that this tournament can have an impact comparable to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final where Nelson Mandela forged a more united nation a year after the end of apartheid, when civil war still seemed possible.
“The enthusiasm, joy and excitement that has engulfed the entire nation in recent weeks has not been witnessed since President Nelson Mandela was released from prison (in 1990). This explosion of national pride is a priceless benefit of the World Cup tournament,” Zuma said on Sunday.
Jordaan has said the tournament is comparable to the 1994 polls ending apartheid, right down to the huge queues that voted then and have tried to get tickets in recent weeks.
”This World Cup will be the pinnacle of the strides we have made over the last 16 years and will chart a new course in our country’s history, characterized by a growth in tourism, a strong investment climate and an elevated global image.
“For the first time in history, Africa really will be the center of the world’s attention -- for all the right reasons -- and we are looking forward to showing our continent in its most positive light,” he told Reuters.
Many domestic critics, including township dwellers in violent protests against lack of services, to poor people forced off the street in a World Cup clean-up, have said it was wrong to spend more than $5 billion on the tournament in a country with an army of poor and some of the globe’s biggest wealth disparities.
But as patriotic fervor and excitement grew over the last few weeks many of the most vocal critics have gone quiet, caught up in the national euphoria.
The many supporters now say this is an opportunity that will not return to Africa in this generation and the tournament will not only boost foreign investment but leave a lasting legacy of roads and major infrastructure.
A special study last month said the total gross economic impact would be $12 billion, although much of this comes from government spending
Editing by Jon Bramley