South Africans were confronted this week with the reality of hosting one of the greatest shows on earth. The first game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament will get under way in just one year's time at Johannesburg's FNB Stadium. It will be a pivotal moment for this country and the continent—THE first ever World Cup held on African soil. But will the country be ready?
The biggest test comes this weekend, when national teams, officials and fans arrive for the first and last "dress rehearsal," the Confederations Cup. Officials insist that everything is on track. Danny Jordaan, CEO of the 2010 local organizing committee, promises the noisiest World Cup ever and, touching on the greatest concern of skeptics in this crime-ridden land, no security problems. "Tickets are being sold," he says, "and there is no Plan B."
As recently as 2007, officials from FIFA, soccer's world governing body, did have a Plan B—holding the tournament in Australia, which staged near-perfect Olympic Games in 2004. Fears that some of the 450,000 foreign expected visitors might be mugged or, worse, killed in a country where some 50 people a day are murdered, topped a worry list that also included finishing stadiums, accommodating fans and getting them to games and between host cities. While the whispers of a change in venue have faded, some worries remain. The South African government has spent billions addressing the first two areas of concern, and will spend billions more on the third. The price tag is problematic enough—the country's economy lurched into its first recession in nearly two decades—earlier this year. Of greater concern is whether all the spending will really deliver the safe, smooth and celebrated tournament organizers are promising.
Stadium development, for some time disrupted by legal disputes and strikes, is now on target. Four stadium upgrades have been completed, and the first new stadium was finished this week. Five others are on pace to be ready by December. Progress on transportation projects has not been as encouraging. The massive Gautrain initiative linking Johannesburg with the city's international airport and Pretoria will be only partly completed by the time the World Cup starts, and rapid-bus systems in host cities have fallen behind schedule. But billions of dollars have been spent upgrading road, rail and airport-city link systems and a much-improved public-transport system will be a key World Cup legacy.
"Transport is what I'm most concerned about," Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape and leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, told NEWSWEEK. "But we are on deadline and are meeting our milestones." Zille may have reason to worry. Recently, striking taxi drivers threatened to disrupt the World Cup and "turn Cape Town into another Baghdad."
Still, it is crime that worries South Africans the most—58 percent believe that safety will be a concern for visitors, according to a survey conducted for world football officials last month. Violent crime is gradually declining and the government is taking a tougher stance on tackling it, but the crime rate in South Africa remains among the highest in the world.
The government response to those concerns is impressive, at least in scope. A force of some 40,000 police officers will be deployed in cities hosting the games. Dedicated police stations, crime-investigation teams and special courts will deal with event-related crimes around the clock, and a 24-hour multilingual hotline will assist visitors in trouble. Countries competing in the event will send their own specially trained officers to assist in the effort, and soldiers could be drafted in to help the police and emergency services. Addressing the lasting jitters over crime, committee head Jordaan pointed out this week that South Africa is no stranger to hosting mega-events.
"We have hosted 146 high-profile events—including rugby and cricket world cups—and more recently the IPL cricket tournament, we are about to host the Confederations Cup and the British and Irish Lions rugby team is touring our country. We have not had a single incident in those 146 events," he told reporters this week.
Not everybody is as positive. The big international security company G4S recently said it would not work the World Cup because of worries over the event's organization and security. Last year, leading columnist Justice Malala joined a chorus of World Cup critics, writing that "our leaders are incapable of making a success of it." With plans on track, criticism has abated. But Craig Urquhart, formerly with FIFA and now editor of www.project2010.co.za, which has been monitoring preparations, points to lingering fears of labor disputes at stadiums and the escalating costs of stadiums—Green Point in Cape Town will cost 4.4 billion rand (about $550 million), four times more than originally estimated. "A year ago an outbreak of xenophobia scared the hell out of everyone," he recalled. As it should, with foreigners due to flood the land. "But that appears to be well under control now."
Most South Africans seem to be optimistic. According to the second of six opinion surveys to be carried out for world soccer officials, 96 percent of the 1,000 people interviewed believe the competition will boost tourism, 94 percent are proud to be hosting it, 92 percent believe the World Cup will lead to improved infrastructure and 90 percent feel it will improve the country's image abroad.
Over the past year, South Africa's attention has been turned inward, to a high-drama political leadership struggle that led to the election of President Jacob Zuma in April. But tournament planners insist they have kept their eye on the ball.
"We are nine months ahead of where Japan and Korea were in 2002, and six months ahead compared to Germany in 2006," organizing committee spokesman Rich Mkondo said this week. Those assurances will be put to the test as this weekend's contest begins with a match between South Africa and Iraq, two of the eight qualifying teams that also include Brazil, Egypt, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and United States. So far more than 70 percent of tickets for the Confederations Cup games have been sold, and it is hoped the figure will rise to 80 percent, a respectable target for such an event.
Tournament officials, of course, anticipate a smooth dress rehearsal and a crisis-free runup to the World Cup. After all, as Jordaan stresses repeatedly, there is no other option: "I suggest we work together to accept the reality that the World Cup is here. It is happening."