Diary

R.W. Johnson

Cape Town is in a state of serious dislocation because of next summer’s football World Cup. The huge new 68,000-seater stadium at Green Point is virtually complete but there are roadworks everywhere, as the city tries to fulfil its public transport plans on time. Except that there is now no hope that it will, because it has belatedly discovered that the vaunted Bus Rapid Transit system, which was supposed to cost 1.5 billion rand, will cost close to three times as much, which the city does not have, so the whole project is being rolled back up, with unforeseeable consequences for those who want to get to the stadium for the games. In one way the cancellation of the BRT is something of a relief, since the black cab associations, seeing it as unwelcome competition, had declared war on it. This is not a metaphor: judging by their previous efforts the war would have involved petrol bombing buses, drive-by shootings and occasional hand grenades thrown into bus queues.

The stadium remains a subject of controversy with many locals. The city already has good stadiums at Newlands and Athlone, the latter a Coloured area on the Cape flats badly in need of public investment. So most thought it would be better to tart up the existing stadiums rather than spoil Green Point by getting rid of other communal facilities there, doing away with its common and planting an enormous building on top of a major archaeological site which houses large numbers of skeletons of the original Khoisan population. But Fifa dictates that World Cup semi-finals can’t be held in stadiums with fewer than 65,000 seats and it wasn’t possible to enlarge either of the two at Newlands or the Athlone stadium to that size. The city had also wanted originally to locate the stadium in a black or Coloured area, both in order to encourage investment and jobs and to make it easier for the poor to attend matches. This immediately went out the window when the Fifa inspection team, headed by Franz Beckenbauer, visited Cape Town. One of the criteria they laid down was that the stadium should have ‘fine mountain views’. The team toured the poor areas, assumed the city had to be joking about choosing anywhere so obviously ugly and unsafe, and plumped for Green Point, an affluent white area with fine sea and mountain views and many good restaurants. This was hardly surprising. Beckenbauer is a rich German and rich Germans who come to Cape Town make a beeline for places like Green Point, not for Athlone.

The city council has given us brave assurances that the stadium will not become a white elephant once the World Cup is over but none of them is very convincing. No local sport, not even rugby, can guarantee to attract regular crowds of 70,000 or anything like it. One proposed solution is for the stadium to be converted to a variety of other uses, but even if that were to happen it would seem extraordinary to spend billions of rands just to stage eight 90-minute soccer games and then spend a further fortune to refurbish the building as something else. Not that Cape Town is unique in this respect. The other brand-new stadiums being built all round the country face the same problems. They were in no way needed in this middle-income developing country: they are there for the sake of an event lasting one month, after which no one has the faintest idea how to meet their maintenance costs.

The World Cup, it is everywhere said, will market South Africa around the world, create jobs and be highly beneficial to the country’s development. In fact, it will be very much for the delectation of the well-off. At least in ancient Rome the poor got to see the chariot races and gladiatorial contests, but there is little chance of the same happening here. In practice, one may be sure, it will be the new elite who will flock to the games in their Mercs and BMWs. It is quite common in South Africa for higher civil servants or mayors and councillors from poor areas to award themselves trips to the Olympics or other such international events, often taking hundreds of hangers-on with them, all paid for from the public purse. There is little doubt that the World Cup, being local, will see more of that sort of thing than ever.

The new Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit, on the edge of the Kruger National Park, is a 43,500-seater suitable only for first and second round matches. Its chief feature is 18 giant roof support columns all built in the shape of giraffes. It’s neat, you could say: the soaring necks hold up the roof while advertising the delights of a quick safari in the park between matches. This stadium, which cost more than £100 million, is cheek-by-jowl with a large settlement of shacks. Despite 15 years of ANC governments that have repeatedly promised them houses, jobs and services, the inhabitants of this squatter camp enjoy close to 100 per cent unemployment, have no electricity and lack any provision for sewage or tapped water. Every time they look at the vast new stadium it tells them that it was not thought worth spending on them even a fraction of the money spent on that.

Worse, when the Franco-South African consortium arrived to construct this monstrosity, they said they needed one or two modern buildings (i.e. buildings with electricity and air conditioning, for it gets unpleasantly hot in the lowveld in summer) to house their accounts, architecture and surveying departments. The only two such buildings available were the local schools, so these were taken over and the children booted out. New schools were promised but meanwhile the children were supposed to attend lessons inside empty containers which had neither windows nor air conditioning. Two years later, there is no sign of new schools being built and latterly this has produced violent protests and rioting by the angry residents. It is highly unlikely that any of them will attend games in the stadium but certain that all manner of international celebrities will, mingling with well-heeled locals.

As I write, the big excitement is the draw for the Cup, which organises the 32 teams in the finals into groups and then plots the paths of group winners and runners-up through to the second round, and thence to the quarter and semi-finals and the final itself. You might think it a mundane event – it just involves drawing numbered balls out of a sort of bubble jar where they are rotated by hot air – but already the city’s five-star hotels are stuffed with Fifa officials, the coaches and managers of the major world soccer teams, and all manner of celebrities, ranging from David Beckham to Charlize Theron. There has been much speculation about whether Diego Maradona will attend the draw. He has been banned from doing so after a recent foul-mouthed TV performance, judged to have brought the game into disrepute, but he is apparently determined not to let that stand in his way. He does, after all, have the Hand of God on his side. The self-importance of the Fifa high-ups is perhaps best gauged by the fact that its head, Sepp Blatter, is allowed to move through airports with no need to show a passport or for any of the usual customs and immigration procedures, a privilege he shares only with the UN secretary-general. Local celebrities such as Desmond Tutu have been recruited into a special club to attend the event, with membership costing many thousands of pounds.

Cape Town in December is a pleasant place to be: the weather is warm, the sea swimmable, the wine farms are lush and green and there are trips to be made up Table Mountain or out to Robben Island. Naturally, the city sees this as a major marketing opportunity for itself and has accorded the draw so much importance that on Friday many roads will be closed to ensure that the Fifa officials and their celebrity friends are able to move around freely, even if that means the rest of us can’t. It’s easy to overlook the fact that the World Cup itself will be held in the middle of South Africa’s winter, when Cape Town will be cold, windy and wet, and it will be freezing at night in Johannesburg, Pretoria and the Free State; the only city with good weather will be Durban.

Normally, the Cup is held in summer – as in Germany in 2006 – and it is ironic that the first Cup to be held in Africa will experience the worst weather of any World Cup in decades. The cannier coaches are divided between those who say this ought to help the Europeans and those who want to headquarter their teams on the highveld, 6000 feet up, despite the freezing temperatures, since the final itself, and probably one semi-final too, will be held there and they want to get their players used to playing at altitude. Only teams without serious ambitions will want to station themselves in Durban, for although the weather there will be gorgeous, this will only make it tougher for teams proceeding to the later rounds, who will, perforce, have to play in far tougher conditions elsewhere.

You might think that the teams to make the last 32 would be approximately the world’s 32 top-ranked teams, but the vagaries of fortune and, far more, Fifa’s own geographic groupings ensure that this isn’t so. To be sure, all the top seven ranked teams are here, and these days the USA ranks 14th, Australia 21st and Algeria 28th, so even these teams, which once would have been considered outsiders, are here on merit. Eyebrows begin to rise only when you realise that Honduras (ranked 38th) has also made it, as have Japan (43rd), South Korea (52nd) and New Zealand (77th). The real embarrassment is with the bottom two, however: North Korea (84th) and the hosts, South Africa (86th). No one will much mind if North Korea goes out early but it will be a major embarrassment if South Africa becomes the first host nation ever to fail to get through the first round, which is what the rankings predict. Blatter has long been extremely anxious about this and has even told the South Africans to pull their socks up, for it is assumed that the tournament needs strong local interest to guarantee good gates through the early rounds.

Any minute now the usual groaning will be heard from teams which claim that they, uniquely, have been drawn in a ‘group of death’. What is the point, one might ask, in groaning about a random draw? Well, the trouble starts there, for the draw is not entirely random. In practice, seven teams are seeded, according to how well they’ve been doing in international matches, along with an eighth team, the host nation, whose passage into the second round is thus made easier – on paper. The draw depends on which balls rise to the top of the jar and thus get plucked out first; but it’s rumoured that certain balls get heated in an oven before a draw, thus guaranteeing that they will bubble to the top. The weakest two teams aside from South Africa and North Korea are South Korea and New Zealand. The odds are, of course, heavily against any two or more of these bottom four finding themselves in the same group. If they do, we will have to be deeply suspicious of the draw.

Why is South Africa – Bafana, Bafana, as the team is called – so weak ? The country has often produced talented players. But the problems seem to be both organisational and psychological. South African league soccer is riddled with bossism and corruption, bent referees, uncompleted fixture lists, endless disputes about the use of ineligible players and so on. The players themselves are often spoilt and ill-disciplined. There are regular complaints about drunkennesss or players striking for more money on the eve of big matches. Even now, with only months to go to the Cup, it is routine to hear that this or that player has been suspended because he failed to turn up at practices or even at games. It doesn’t help that many matches against other African countries are so poorly organised that Bafana, Bafana’s best players, often playing for European teams, simply refuse to turn out. A great deal of witchcraft or black magic is also employed in such games – sometimes producing pitches that are unplayable because of all the lucky charms and folk medicines which have been jammed into them. (Currently the plan is for each game to be preceded by the ritual slaughter of an animal – probably a bullock or a goat – out on the pitch. A very traditional thing, done with a knife or assegai. So far Fifa has said nothing.) If Bafana, Bafana fails to get through the first round the fall-back strategy will be a call for all South Africans to back other African teams – after all, Camero0n now ranks 11th in the world, Côte d’Ivoire 16th and Algeria only 12 places behind that. This would be a better default position if they weren’t all Francophone countries far away from southern Africa.

The anxiety over Bafana, Bafana is probably overdone. The truth is that Fifa will want to see full stadiums even if that means letting people in free. The real worry ought to be that South African soccer fans are unlikely to be cosmopolitan enough. They will certainly queue and pay to watch, say, England v. Brazil, but who will bother with USA v. Slovenia or Uruguay v. Mexico – even if those turn out be top, tough games? In practice, what matters to Fifa is the enormous sums paid for world TV rights and that in no way depends on Bafana, Bafana getting through or, indeed, on good local gates. Good crowds are important in that they look a lot better on television screens. If South African apathy towards mid-table games is as prevalent as some think it will be, don’t put it past Fifa to pay people to go and watch.

As one observes this huge event being put together one realises that soccer has become a matter of trying to defy gravity. Everything about the event – the expenditure on the stadiums, the players’ enormous wages, the vast sums for the TV rights, the glitz and glamour of all the WAGs and celebrities, and even the reasoning behind closing key city roads for Fifa or Blatter – indicates that extraordinary concentrations of wealth and power are involved. Everything we know about human behaviour when it is subjected to such powerful pressures and incentives leads us to expect that cheating and violence will become virtually inevitable. Not just handballs and diving, but crooked referees, crooked draws and all the rest. Yet we also know that it’s vital that the TV commentators are able to enthuse about ‘the beautiful game’ with at least a margin of credibility: think how disastrous it was for cricket when match-fixing was exposed, or how badly the Tour de France has suffered from all its doping scandals. In most countries in Africa and Latin America such pressures have led to the ruin of local leagues, while the match-fixing scandal currently being investigated in Germany suggests that the results of hundreds of matches in Central and Eastern Europe were also fraudulent. The number of countries in the world where a game of soccer is still a fair contest may be quite small.

The fact that the World Cup has finally come to Africa can quite rightly be seen as a belated recognition of the wonderful talents of African footballers – Eto’o, Drogba and very many more. But it also means that Fifa has stepped into a region where the game has all but collapsed under the weight of corruption. It would be nice to think that this would give officialdom some pause for reflection, perhaps even lead to an attempt to introduce remedial measures. But this seems unlikely. Already, Cape Town is living in a frenzy of media hype. And this is just for the draw, for heaven’s sake; wait until the Cup itself. As for the soccer: well, that is increasingly becoming a matter of suspending disbelief.