Not since Nelson Mandela stepped out of Robben Island prison after decades of imprisonment and the walls of apartheid came down has South Africa been so much in the global spotlight. In the next 30-plus days, Africa’s economic powerhouse will engage in a rite of passage by hosting the FIFA World Cup soccer championship.
This is the first time the world’s biggest single sporting event has been held on the African continent.
No other tournament, not even the Olympics, quite transfixes the world as the World Cup. The 64 games, involving 32 national teams, 10 venues and nine cities, will be followed closely by fans in every corner of the globe. Thousands of journalists and a projected 373,000 foreign visitors are descending on South Africa. Nearly 2.9 million tickets have been sold, and an estimated worldwide audience of more than 1 billion will watch the championship game July 11 in Johannesburg. Outside of South Africa, most tickets have been purchased by American (132,000) and British fans.
But beyond its sporting impact, for South Africa, the World Cup is seen as another defining moment in the history of the developing nation.
“It was not FIFA who decided to give the 2010 World Cup to South Africa,” said Sepp Blatter, president of soccer’s world governing body. “Nelson Mandela, the world’s great humanist and charismatic leader, was the person who got the World Cup for South Africa.”
Soccer holds a special place in the South African sports firmament. It was a rare vehicle of black empowerment during the apartheid years, and repeatedly defied efforts by the white-run governments to prevent mixed-race matches and leagues. Mr. Mandela himself played soccer with fellow prisoners during his long confinement.
Even under apartheid, “soccer was a black-run sport, by and large - it was ahead of the curve,” Michigan State history professor Pater Alegi told the Associated Press.
As for the honor and headache of hosting the massive event, truth be told, it was Africa’s turn.
Previous World Cups were held in the Americas (including the United States), Europe and Asia. South Africa was awarded the event in 2004 after beating out a weak field of African rivals, including Libya and Egypt.
There was concern over the pace of preparations in South Africa, where World Cup organizers had to deal with labor strikes and the effects of the world economic recession.
“We want to explode the myth that there’s a contradiction between being African and being world-class,” chief organizer Danny Jordaan said in the book “Africa United” by Steve Bloomfield. “And it is a myth.”
The nation has spent more than $2.5 billion on building or updating stadiums. But against the backdrop of the finals, South Africa is still dealing with an image problem.
In a country where the unemployment rate hovers near 25 percent, crime is a major headache. The homicide rate is eight times worse than in the United States. South Africa has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with HIV, more than any other nation. And the nation’s polygamist president, Jacob Zuma, became embroiled in yet another sex scandal this week, after claims that one of his three wives is pregnant after an extramarital affair with her bodyguard, who has committed suicide.
For the 31 national teams that will join host South Africa, it has been a long two-year process of qualifying games to reach the tournament. The U.S. team had to play 16 games to reach the finals.
The World Cup is more popular than ever in the United States, where soccer has struggled to carve out a niche in the sports landscape.