South Africa's Favourite Player

With only days to go before the start of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa is awkwardly poised between euphoria and anti-climax. The multiple crowd injuries at Nigeria's practice game with North Korea due to an audience stampede were a sharp warning both that expectations are madly high (besotted Nigerian immigrants are blamed for the stampedes) and that no amount of preparation can make anything foolproof. There have been several minor hotel dramas. The Colombian team, which didn’t qualify but seems to be here just to play practice games and enjoy the atmosphere, has had $21,000 robbed from its hotel rooms. In other barely disguised attempts at rent-seeking, the Germans have been told their hotel is to be closed down for not having a licence and the staff at the French team's hotel are threatening to strike. More worryingly, so are workers at Eskom, the state-owned electricity company, who are demanding an 18 per cent pay rise. (Inflation is only 5 per cent and unemployment is 40 per cent.) This is little less than blackmail for they, of course, have the power to halt the Cup completely.

But South Africans at large are in party mood. Indeed, Cape Town's mayor, Dan Plato, who is staging a huge open-air public party on Thursday, says his aim is to ‘position Cape Town as the party capital of the world’. Since it is raining steadily at present in Cape Town, as is normal at this time of year, with gales forecast, this may be optimistic. But that is what South Africans in general are. A poll shows that no less than 13 per cent of the population expects South Africa (ranked 83rd in the world) to win the Cup, although a perhaps more realistic 20 per cent expected the team not to progress through its initial group. Meanwhile, 80 per cent think the tournament will unite South Africans, though the truth is that a poor showing by the local team will almost certainly reopen the racial divide: the national teams in the ‘white’ sports, rugby and cricket, are at or near the top, while the South African soccer squad includes only one white, so failure would be seen as a black failure. The popularity of English Premiership games on TV here means that England has a substantial following but the largest single group, 37 per cent, expect Brazil to win, with only 8 per cent choosing second-favourites Spain, though the most popular single player is Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. The cognoscenti would opt for Argentina's Lionel Messi but Ronaldo's spell with Manchester United is what counts here, given the accent on the Premiership.

Otherwise, it's all euphoria, with 86 per cent holding a ‘firm belief’ that the Cup will be a great success, 92 per cent feeling pride in South Africa as host nation and 93 per cent sure that the result will be an increased flow of tourists to the country. President Jacob Zuma is already benefitting heavily, not just because he is frequently pictured in welcoming poses with famous people but because the media concentration on the Cup has enabled him to push under the carpet his latest marital shenanigans with his second wife, MaNtuli, who is allegedly expecting a child by her late bodyguard, who committed suicide on revelation of the news. For all that, South Africans will be casting a quizzical eye at his four first ladies when they attend the opening ceremony on Friday. At the opening of Parliament they were caught on camera pushing and jostling one another for the position of senior wife. On that occasion no yellow cards were awarded but this time, it being the World Cup, one can't rule out diving and a penalty shoot-out.