World Cup questions remain in South Africa

Martin Rogers

Radio stations blared out the plea for an entire population to clad itself in yellow and to belt out a rousing rendition of the national anthem. South Africa responded in kind on Thursday, marking the one-year countdown to the start of the 2010 World Cup with a joyous outpouring of celebration.

The scenes from the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town and soccer stadiums around the country hammered home one point: the South African people – with their passion, spirit and love of soccer – deserve to have next year's tournament become a resounding success.

Talk of a late switch to a nation with enough ready-built stadiums to cope at short notice (i.e., United States, Germany, Japan) has long since been quashed. However, with 365 days to go and as many questions still to be answered, a seamless staging of the first World Cup ever on the African continent is far from being a formality.

Danny Jordaan, the CEO for the 2010 World Cup, has been an anti-apartheid activist, a member of parliament, a professional cricket and soccer player and a lecturer. He's also a close friend of Nelson Mandela.

For much of the last two years, though, Jordaan has served as an administrative firefighter, trying to douse the various infernos that threatened to destroy South Africa's dream.

A year remains, but Jordaan knows it will go by in a flash. There is much to do.

"Finally it is a given, an accepted reality that the World Cup is coming," Jordaan said. "The stadiums are just about ready, tickets are being sold and all of our plans are in place. The dream is reality, the game is on."

Despite Jordaan's buoyant words, the soccer world still needs to be convinced. Casting doubt over the ability of South Africa to stage a successful event has recently become a popular sport in political circles, and many skeptics remain.

Grave concerns started to emerge three years ago when it appeared that construction on several new and upgraded stadiums were running well behind schedule. Soon after the 2006 World Cup, German soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer identified these "big problems."

"But these are not South African problems, they are African problems," Beckenbauer said. "People are working against rather than with each other."

Further concerns have been focused on safety. The most recent crime figures show a murder rate of 38.6 per 100,000 head of population, putting South Africa among the 10 most dangerous countries, according to the United Nations.

"We are confident it will be a fantastic festival of football," Jordaan said. "There are many issues to tackle but we are committed to ensuring a smooth event that will be a credit to football and a credit to South Africa."

Jordaan's words are always carefully measured and understandably so. What he surely realizes, but would rarely say in so many words, is that South Africa needs to eradicate the deep-rooted lack of confidence in it from the international soccer community.

The stadiums need to be done on time and without a hitch. With this World Cup guaranteed to leave a legacy, the venues need to be of a specification that will last.

South Africa needs to use its uniqueness to its advantage, implementing the colorful culture of this remarkable land into the greatest soccer tournament on earth. However, efficiency has never been a strong point of African society and South Africa faces an even tougher task in following Germany, which put on a near-perfect World Cup in 2006.

In South Africa, much will depend on improvements in public transport and infrastructure. For that, Jordaan and his organizing committee must rely on the appropriate government promises being fulfilled.

If South Africa can rise against the odds and stage a successful tournament, the impact on the soccer world could be significant.

It was right that Africa got this tournament because it had never had one, and South Africa was the only legitimately suitable destination on that continent. However, if Africa wants the World Cup to return any time within the next several decades, then the 2010 event needs to be one heck of a show. A failure would only increase the future preference for an established nation to serve as host.

The Confederations Cup, which begins Sunday in South Africa, will give some indication of the readiness of certain facilities. But Jordaan and FIFA president Sepp Blatter will be busy men over the coming months as they attempt to create a positive and open-minded approach from the world's media.

"I am convinced that the World Cup in South Africa shall be a great success" Blatter said Thursday. "I hope it will help Africa convince the rest of the world that it has formidable potential."

The world, particularly the soccer world, has its doubts. Those questions cannot be answered until the big kickoff itself, in just 365 short days.