My Take on the Upcoming World Cup in South Africa
The entire continent of Africa will forever change after June and July when the world's biggest soccer superstars showcase their talents in what will no doubt be a drama and tension-filled World Cup in South Africa.
There will be many problems obviously, and negative social consequences of hosting a money draining tournament which favors elites, new stadiums which push out poor communities and traders, sport as a drug manufactured by FIFA, television and advertisers, but also joy on so many levels, because at the end of the day aren't joyous moments what we live for?
Consider the pride most people feel in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 35 years after hosting a championship boxing match, between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, known as the "Rumble in the Jungle." Some Congolese say that was the proudest moment of their lives and many older Africans say, "I remember when Ali came."
Consider that when South Africa hosted the 1995 rugby World Cup, then post-apartheid President Nelson Mandela said "sports are more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers."
He added, "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has." Hollywood recently underlined the political importance of that event in the Clint Eastwood movie "Invictus".
MUCH MORE THAN BOXING, OR RUGBY
And this will be the soccer World Cup, not boxing or rugby, but the world's premier event, watched by millions around the world, coming for the first time to soccer crazy Africa, a continent so often on the sidelines, and too often depicted as conflict-ravaged, coup-prone, impoverished and disease-stricken.
The head of the international football federation FIFA, Sepp Blatter, says the upcoming World Cup will leave a legacy for all of Africa. In an interview with the FIFA.com website, he said, "We want (Africans) to be proud and be able to say:'We Africans have organized the world's most important event.'" He said it has been a dream of his to have Africa host the World Cup since the 1970s when he saw for himself the continent's passion for soccer. Whatever his bad sides, he did deliver on this one dream, shared by many Africans.
Granted, the World Cup will not be perfect, and it will not turn Africa into a paradise, but it will warm many hearts and inspire many of Africa's children and young adults, who, this cliche is true, play barefoot on sandlots and open spaces, with ragged soccer balls, tin cans, or even plastic bags tied together, from sunrise to sunset, with unabated energy across the continent. Every village, town, company, school, neighborhood, association in Africa has a soccer team.
Whenever Africa holds its biennial African Cup of Nations, most offices, schools, hospitals and government agencies barely function, since everyone it seems makes it a priority to watch games, whether or not their favorite team is playing. Before and after games, endless discussions are held over the merits of such and such a player, or such and such a coach. Witch doctors are sometimes blamed, national pride rises, new songs by popular artists emerge and laughs are had by all.
NOT WITHOUT DANGERS, SHORTCOMINGS AND SCAMS
The latest edition in Angola also showed the dangers of holding major events in Africa, when the team bus for Togo's national team was attacked by separatist rebels before the competition got under way. Three staff members were killed and the team pulled out.
There will be logistical drama and security challenges in South Africa as well, that is to be certain. South Africa has one of the world's highest crime rates, with an average of 50 murders per day, and one London-based company is selling anti-stabbing vests to fans who will be traveling there. South Africa's police said the company was causing "unnecessary fear." Some teams. though, have recommended their players wear bullet proof vests when outside stadiums and hotels.
The potential for more stadium stampedes has everyone nervous, following the recent one at a warm-up friendly in South Africa between North Korea and Nigeria.
Also, on the logistical front, accommodations that are available are being made very expensive. Fake tickets have been circulating on the Internet. Slum dwellers have been pushed away from new stadiums, which have been criticized for being too costly.
But along roads filled with chanting hawkers and World Cup memorabilia, visitors will also get to experience first hand the seemingly infinite youth, vibrancy, and optimism that also characterize Africa. Visitors may have to feel a little less secure than they are used to, with tangible risks of their trip being derailed, but they may also be enthralled by the experience of living a bit more on the edge as well.
NEW SOUNDS AND DANCES
Inside stadiums, they will hear the loud and sometimes obnoxious Vuvuzela horns blared almost continuously. The South African horn has its tradition in calling elders to village meetings, and is now used by African fans to rally support for their favorite team.
Organizers have also come up with an official dance, the diski dance, which comprises of a series of choreographed soccer moves with an invisible soccer ball.
Outside of soccer, visitors will also see Africa has a thriving and competitive cell phone industry, and a computer savvy population, trying to leapfrog other technologies to make up for lost time in the globalized economy, and not serve just as a repository for the rest of the world as was the case in the past and still is when its people and resources are pilfered. The beauty of coastal cities like Cape Town, spectacular wildlife in several national parks, beaches with legendary surfing waves, and wine producing areas will also be main attractions.
But this will not be South Africa's time alone to shine. Current South African President Jacob Zuma has made it repeatedly clear this is a World Cup for all of Africa.
AN AFRICAN SEMIFINALIST OR WINNER?
On the playing field, in addition to the automatic bid for South Africa's Bafana Bafana team, four other sub-Saharan African squads qualified, the Black Stars of Ghana, the Elephants of Ivory Coast, the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. All African teams and not just South Africa's say they feel they will have a home advantage in dealing with the local food, noise and general atmosphere. Recent injuries have dimmed some of those prospects, though. One African star still standing to look out for is Samuel Eto'o from Cameroon, even if he recently got involved in a spat with Roger Milla over legacy.
No African team has ever made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup, and they will once again face stiff competition, from the likes of usual heavyweights Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and England. Last go-round finalists France and Italy now seem second tier, but can always play tight defense and surprise even if they don't score many goals. Some young stars like Argentina's diminutive Lionel Messi, Brazil's super quick Kaka or Portugal's showboating Christiano Ronaldo will try to establish their marks as legendary players.
No one knows who will win the FIFA World Cup trophy, but it's a safe bet that behind almost every television, Internet and even cell phone screen in Africa which works, and which has power, from outdoor cafes in big, teeming, polluted cities, to small huts in tranquil, remote outposts of civilization, families, friends, co-workers and even rivals will put other occupations and concerns at a standstill, to watch modern-day gladiators compete over a round ball, to cheer and jeer with every goal and missed opportunity, to feel proud of their heritage and their place in the world, and to lift their heads up high when the final whistle has blown and Africa is recognized as having been a successful host of the world's premier event.
The tournament may not run as seamlessly as it did when Italy won the 18th edition in Germany in 2006, but the 19th edition promises to be full of music, color, warmth, charm and exuberance at a scale the world may have yet to ever experience.