For South Africa, 2009 has been a grinding year; a fractious general election combined with the first economic recession since the advent of democracy. Can the World Cup lift a battered and sceptical nation?
With eyes fixed on the road immediately ahead, and desperately trying not to stumble, South Africans have spent the last few years going about their lives in small slices. But with the draw on Friday, they are just now beginning to look, and to their amazement, a grand tournament is about to take place.
Not only that, huge new stadia seemed to have just popped out of the ground – stadia of such grand proportions that even the most sceptical cannot but be impressed, even overwhelmed.
For all its political correctness, the African calabash stadium outside Soccer City is just blow-away gorgeous. For all the gripes about Greenpoint being far from local transport, not to mention far from where most people actually live, Cape Town’s new stadium is a model of Cape grace.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the least noticed: the Mbombela Stadium near Nelspruit, with its tacky giraffe pylons and seats with zebra patterns. Laugh all you want, but it’s just charming.
Photo: Soccer City, Soweto (Reuters)
“If we can do that, why can’t we make Eskom work or get to grips with Aids, or whatever ...” is a common refrain in the restaurants of Johannesburg these days.
The draw on Friday night will force another lifting of the eyes. It will force everyone living in their small spaces to appreciate the fact that their place, their home, their little modest patch, is going to be a massive party venue.
Photo: Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. Reuters/Rogan Ward
The timing could not be better; South Africans desperately need that elusive moment of coalescence felt only in tiny glimpses in the past – once at Mandela’s release, once on voting day in 1994, once at the Ruby World Cup in 1995, and also once as winners of the CAF African Nations Cup as hosts in 1996.
This last victory raises perhaps what will be the most topical and potentially gut-wrenching part of hosting the World Cup for South Africans: the performance of the South African team.
Almost every mention of the hosting of the World Cup in the same breath mentions the travails of the South African team, in truth only playing in the tournament because their country is the host. The amount of word-space devoted to this fractious topic is overwhelming, yet it’s also a crucial issue because an appalling performance from the team is the one thing that could really sour the tournament.
Photo: Nelspruit Stadium (Reuters)
Almost every host team has outperformed. Only seven countries have won the World Cup, and six of them won it on home soil. Ironically, the only team to have not done so is Brazil – the most successful participant in the tournament, with five wins – who were runners-up when they lost to Uruguay in 1950, an event that sparked nation-wide mourning.
England (1966) and France (1998) won their only titles while playing as host nations. Uruguay (1930), Italy (1934) and Argentina (1978) won their first titles as host nations but have gone on to win again, while Germany (1974) won their second title on home soil.
But it’s not just confined to victory; lowly-rated teams have performed well as hosts, including Sweden who were runners-up in 1958, Chile who came third in 1962, South Korea who came fourth in 2002, and even Germany surprised by coming third in 2006.
More potentially disturbing, all host nations have progressed beyond the first round.This little worrying grey cloud hovers over the great stadia, and it’s a bitter pill South Africans might just have to swallow: Bafana Bafana are under such pressure now and the run-up has been so vacillating, it’s really hard to imagine an outstanding performance.
Yet the joy of sport vests in its tantalising possibilities. Perhaps the surprise of waking up to see massive new stadia being born will repeat itself once the tournament begins.
If nothing else, it will be a great, much-needed party, and South Africans are beginning to realise that now. Here’s to that hope.
By Tim Cohen
Main photo: Reuters