There’s a lot of pressure on South Africa this summer.
The most obvious issue is the sheer logistical nightmare of hosting a World Cup. A World Cup involves 32 teams, their vast entourages of support staff, coaches, and officials, hundreds upon hundreds of media persons, and hundreds of thousands of fans from a multitude of nations. These throngs of humanity require transportation, accommodations, medical services, police presence, and myriad of other ancillary services. Germany managed the task admirably in 2006, but Germany is a far smaller nation, with one of the most advanced transport systems in the world, and the kinds of public services available to Europe’s largest economy. Fears abound about South Africa’s ability to safely and efficiently stage the tournament. The violent crime rate in South Africa is well above that of most developed nations.
Those fears, coupled with the long travel distance and the usual substantial costs associated with intercontinental travel, although often at incredibly inflated prices for this World Cup, have conspired to keep some potential traveling fans at home. As such, FIFA has been scrambling to sell off excess seats in the ten venues, many of which were purpose-built or underwent massive restoration projects to be usable in the World Cup. The sport’s governing body admitted recently that as many as half a million tickets remain unsold, a prospect that will terrify any FIFA executive.
Then there’s the tournament’s legacy to consider. The South African government has been heavily criticized for evicting scores of impoverished people from slums and shanty towns and bulldozing undesirable areas in continuing efforts to beautify the country before the tournament. Flurries of protests and construction strikes stalled efforts, while alleged human rights violations are being investigated.
The tournament does, however, reflect the two-decades-long trend of growing influence Africa is having in World Football. Under the Apartheid government, South Africa was banned from FIFA competition, taking part in its first qualifying campaign in just 1994. Previously, South Africa have played in just two World Cups, 1998 and 2002, going three and out on both occasions. In recent years, it has exported more and more of its players to European clubs, gaining exposure and respect for the domestic game.
On the field, Bafana Bafana, ranked 90th in the world by FIFA have been given a difficult obstacle to overcome in a competitive Group A.The South Africans have been given the tricky propositions of Mexico (ranked 17th), Uruguay (18th), and perhaps most intimidatingly, France, former world champions and last tournament’s runner-up (10th). They do however, have history at winning in tournaments on home soil, having hoisted the African Cup of Nations on friendly turf in 1996.
If they are to have any chance at success, South Africa must be able to call upon its small core of players with experience in top-level European football. Everton’s Stephen Pienaar will be relied on to create most of the chances for Bafana Bafana’s all-time leading scorer, West Ham striker Benni McCarthy. Leading the defensive line will be the country’s most capped player, captain Aaron Mokoena of Portsmouth. Beyond that trio, however, the talent pool becomes much shallower. Of the 29 players called into the team’s final pre-tournament training camp, twenty play in the South African league, while the remaining six are scattered across various smaller leagues in Europe.
History is on their side, however; no host nation has ever failed to progress the the second round of the World Cup, and on six occasions, the host nation has gone on to win the tournament. Their sights may not be set quite that high, but South Africa should take heart from those facts, and from a passionate home crowd, whose vuvuzelas (Zulu for “annoying plastic crap”) will be one of the most memorable sounds in World Cup history. If the teams play ends up being half as intimidating as those horns, South African fans will have much cause for celebration.
Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at USArsnl@gmail.com.