South Africans Savor Anticipation of Hosting Soccer's 2010 World Cup
Sunday, June 14, 2009
JOHANNESBURG -- MacMillan Siyoko paused. His eyes misted. He struggled to find the words to express his feelings about an event scheduled to begin here one year from now.
"On my side, I don't know how to explain. It's an inspiration which I have never seen in my life," said Siyoko, 47, a street vendor at a massive construction site, gesturing toward fellow hawkers standing over smoky stoves. "Not only to benefit us. But to recognize that Africa can do something -- for itself."
Siyoko was talking about soccer.
So are most South Africans these days, as many of the world's top soccer players arrive here for the Confederations Cup, a major tournament starting Sunday. But the soccer topic capturing most imaginations, including Siyoko's, arrives next June. That is when South Africa will become the first African nation to host what is by far the world's most-watched sporting event, and the hordes of tourists and journalists that come with it: the World Cup.
In this sports-mad country, the promise of a home-turf World Cup is enough to send much of the population over the moon, and ubiquitous large digital clocks are helping them count down the days (361, as of Sunday). But to South Africans, it is about far more than the game.
Here, hosting the World Cup is viewed as a chance to change the image of a continent known for poverty and conflict. Many also see it as a milestone on a path toward redemption and unity for a nation whose former policy of racial segregation made it such a pariah that it was barred from the Olympics and the World Cup for three decades.
For soccer-loving South Africans, to recall the day in 2004 when they were chosen as host by FIFA, soccer's international governing body, is similar to remembering the day liberation icon Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. Danny Jordaan, head of the nation's organizing committee, often compares the World Cup quest to the anti-apartheid struggle: After narrowly losing a bid to host in 2006, South Africa kept trying.
"Mandela struggled for a free and democratic South Africa that could compete equally with the best in the world," Jordaan wrote in Thursday's Times newspaper in Johannesburg. The World Cup "will help bring that goal even closer to reality."
And so it is that South Africans are defensive about persistent doubts -- mostly from European media, they complain -- that an African nation, even the most highly developed one, can pull off the massive tournament. The month-long event, which takes place every four years, is expected to attract about 450,000 foreigners to South Africa.
"Are you ready?" said Rich Mkhondo, spokesman for South Africa's World Cup organizing committee, mimicking the question he is most sick of. "We are. Even for the World Cup. We are. We are."
The Confederations Cup, which kicks off with a match between Iraq and South Africa, is likely to be viewed as a test of that vow. But the Confederations Cup, held one year before the World Cup, is a much smaller tournament that attracts few outsiders and generates a lot less buzz. The U.S. team is among those taking part.
With its pride at stake, South Africa has been racing to prepare for 2010. Though its infrastructure is good even by world standards, the government has invested billions of dollars to upgrade roads and transportation systems and build or refurbish 10 stadiums, which organizers say are on schedule to be completed by December.