Sunday, July 11, 2010

"This time for Africa..."

WHATEVER you might have heard, not all South Africans brought vuvuzelas to games - even if sometimes they’ve felt as must-have as a pair of holding midfielders.
One odd stadium sight was a jitterbug fan in Bloemfontein, manically parping on a referee’s whistle while furiously flourishing a red card in bemused spectators’ faces.
And wearing a placard on a string around his neck, and a customised T-shirt, both begging God’s blessing upon Sepp Blatter for bringing the World Cup to South Africa.
Not for this fan the bootleg clothing produced elsewhere, bearing slogans such as ‘Fick Fufa’ or ‘MAFIFA: we own the game’ in protest at world football’s governing body and its often-clumsy commercial might.
No, he was purely, evangelically grateful to have the World Cup brought to his country, one for so long justly scorned for its retrograde racism - yet more recently suspected of not quite being fit for modern convenience.
Like the whistle-blasting Blatter fan – by turns irritating yet endearing – this has been a tournament of, if not necessarily contradictions, then at least a bemusing blend of rights and wrongs.
After the – warning, crashing cliché ahead – pristine efficiency of Germany’s World Cup four years ago, with its super-connected rail routes and throbbing city centres, South Africa 2010 was always going to be a more ramshackle and uncertain experience.
That charm and sheer difference was, of course, a large part of the attraction in what was admittedly a daring and courageous decision by Fifa – and for which the determined Sepp himself deserves credit.
Staging Africa’s first World Cup has proved more than merely symbolic, though that symbolism itself can breed not only national confidence but inward investment and beneficial social change.
Even the most ardent football fan, however, must have felt some jarring discomfort at times.
Say, when shuttling to extravagantly-built or revamped World Cup stadia past the sprawling, tented townships fogged in dual carriageway dirt – shuffled away from the logo-soaked safe tourist centres, yet not always quite out of sight.
This remains a country where rife corruption remains, to the benefit of well-connected business and political elites – both white and black – while too many schools, sanitation and above all public housing remain squalidly neglected.
Unemployment has risen to 25.2 per cent – soon to soar even further as the World Cup construction boom crumbles – while an estimated one in five people are living with HIV, hardly helped by years of healthcare under-funding and Aids denialism on high.
Tournament organisers have spent the weekend acclaiming crime rates lower than expected, despite a handful of high-profile thefts suffered by tourists, journalists and even squads such as England’s and Spain’s.
Much pre-World Cup doom-mongering about rampant gangs, dozens of murders a day and at the very least a pickpocket on every corner went well over the top, as events – or non-events – have now shown.
Most visitors have been kept not just well aware of what precautions to take, but also well away from the ‘no-go zones’ which South Africa’s middle-class, gated communities prefer to pretend not to notice.
Those criminals who have been caught have been both prosecuted and punished in quickfire, no-holds-barred fashion.
The mobile ‘World Cup courts’ established at Fifa’s behest have been handing out summary sentences of several years in jail for even minors thefts, such as swiping someone’s mobile phone or branded umbrella.
While there has been some unease about South Africa’s government changing and introducing its own laws to please Fifa, the crackdown has been widely welcomed – and the ‘World Cup courts’ look set to stay once the football has long finished.
Fifa and the tournament’s organising committee have scored their own own goals at times, too.
Aside from Blatter’s dilly-dallying over goal-line technology, no flip-flop was perhaps more needlessly embarrassing than the affair of the Bavaria Beer girls and their orange miniskirts.
Here, illustrated in conveniently photogenic form, was the counter-intuitive compulsion in Fifa and their lucrative official sponsors to not just make a decent buck from the World Cup – but seek to crush anyone with the audacity to hop on board the bandwagon.
The renegade brewer itself hardly suffered, knowing (almost) all publicity is good publicity.
But little similar solace came the way of those street-traders, native cooks or factory workers who had hoped to actually contribute and cash in on a World Cup in their own backyard for a change.
In all the fuss over the vuvuzela as the emblem of South Africa’s World Cup, green-tinged leopard mascot Zakumi has been shoved to the sidelines.
It’s perhaps even more emblematic that, far from being the must-buy toy souvenir of the tournament both here and overseas, Zakumi has been most ubiquitous as a corporate schill in adverts for Visa and telecoms giant MTN.
On the eve of the tournament, Fifa proudly announced annual profits smashing the $1million barrier for the first time, and will pocket an estimated £2.1billion from South Africa’s World Cup.
It’s hard to argue when such revenues come from marketing and TV firms who know all too well just how eagerly and vastly a worldwide audience devours a World Cup.
Then again, the football governing body’s profits are about half as much as the price paid by South African taxpayers to host Fifa’s party.
Tourist body estimates this weekend tentatively suggest foreign visitors might have pumped £1billion back into the local economy thanks to this summer’s football festival.
Such sustenance will certainly come in handy – if redirected properly – as a post-World Cup hangover of further job losses looms, especially with fears of renewed xenophobic violence in the air.
But while those who toiled to complete the vital infrastructure (just about) in time may now find themselves cast aside, albeit having scored a couple of free World Cup match tickets, at least their contributions have been literally set in stone.
World Cup-aided infrastructure is now in place, including improved highways, dazzling stadia which will have to fend off ‘white elephant warnings, and the over-budget – and almost-finished – Pretoria-Johannesburg ‘Gautrain’ railway, to be enjoyed by business commuters at least.
Schools and healthcare projects will also have been boosted, if not by direct government funding then the grass-roots efforts of voluntary organisations perhaps spurred on by the World Cup spotlight.
Such benefits come with price-tags attached – yet calculating this World Cup’s success in cold hard cash sums alone seems too reductive by far.
Trying to calculate at all, in fact, ignores the vast intangible feelgood factor involved – not simply for these five weeks of celebration, or ‘Ayoba’, but the long-lasting impact of having staged this tournament, made this statement.
The end-of-tournament report card could be written in purely ‘negative positives’, so to speak.
After all the hype, there was no al-Qaeda attack. Foreign visitors were not slaughtered in scores, whether by terrorists or more mundane local murderers. All venues were ready on time, none collapsing – only occasionally looking a little too under-filled.
The worst security mishap was not some explosive outrage, but an England fan stumbling his way to the toilet and somehow confronting team mascot David Beckham and his abject pals – an omen of just how easy German forwards would find breaking through the England defence.
And no players fell prey to the rumoured snake with enough venom in his tongue to do for two 23-man squads, as some tabloid reports hysterically predicted – though perhaps only for the sake of a ‘They think it’s all cobra’ headline.
(At the time of my writing this, anyway – apologies if the Dutch and Spanish squads have perished by poison overnight.)
Yet patronisingly judging South Africa 2010 by what mercifully hasn’t happened doesn’t feel quite right either.
A common refrain from locals, both black and white, has been how ‘unifying’ the experience has felt – some even going so far as to put it above Nelson Mandela’s release and the official anointing of a new ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Despite the vast advances in just two decades, attempts to pin down a shared South African identity appear to have frustrated many – until now.
Much has been written about football being the game of South Africa’s black majority, snubbed by the white community favouring rugby instead.
Rugby had its Invictus breakthrough with the 1995 rugby World Cup and Mandela’s determination to make it an occasion for all.
Only now, however, might football be gaining a reciprocal effect.
In new football stadia or borrowed rugby arenas, eager faces of all colours have worn makarapa helmets or novelty glasses, or been found on the end of blasting/blasted vuvuzelas.
As it should be, of course, but still surprising to some South Africans themselves.
‘Shapa Bafana Bafana’ was the rallying cry at the start of the tournament and the eruption of joy when Siphiwe Tshabalala opening this World Cup’s goalscoring – only the fifth time the hosts have ever done so – will linger long in the memory. In the eardrums, it’s maybe only now beginning to fade.
The 3-0 defeat to Uruguay came as a shock to the local system, and newspaper letter-writers still seem fiercely divided over whether Carlos Alberto Parreira deserves sympathy or scorn for not quite making the second round.
That first-round exit is a piece of unwanted history for the hosts, though the USA had worse results in 1994 only to squeak through to the knock-out stages under different rules.
But the Bloemfontein victory over France offered some valediction, as did the vivacity with which flags were still hoisted high – whether South Africa’s or, in the fellow-feeling days ahead, Ghana’s.
The South African players’ open-top bus tour through the crammed streets of Sandton, the day before the big kick-off, might have felt a little hubristic – or, conversely, unambitious, in acknowledging this might prove just ‘as good as it gets’.
Yet it did make a point, from the very start, of trying to bring the World Cup party to the people, a communal spirit so stubbornly resisted by the English camp in their Rustenburg luxury isolation.
Perhaps if England’s sulks had made more of an effort to engage with actual South Africa, Wayne Rooney might not have made such a churlish fool of himself with his boo-boy-baiting tantrum.
Maybe they might not have performed any more coherently, but then, Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk has made much of his team’s throbbing Johannesburg base – while managing to stick around until today’s Soccer City showdown, inflammable egos (so far) kept in check.
This chilly winter World Cup has offered the warmest of welcomes – everywhere smiles, politeness and enthusiasm to just chat about anything, just so long as it’s football.
Even those on security duty at the stadia themselves have been hail-fellow-well-met – for the most part, anyway – whether those under-contract, under-paid stewards or the police hordes brought in at times as replacements.
The walk-outs at four stadia – Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, Durban’s Moses Mabhida, Cape Town’s Green Point and Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay – actually made negligible difference to those making their way in and out of matches.
The most damaging impact was on the exploited staff themselves, paid even less than the meagre amounts first promised.
Again, the affair said little for billion-dollar boasters Fifa, who depressingly battled harder to pass the buck than step in and speak up for those toiling to keep their own show on the road.
Hard-working ordinary Africans, that is, those supposed to be this World Cup’s biggest winners – or, at least, the most gratified.
But just try taking away from what’s been done – what’s been, above all, fun. Three million people have made it through the turnstiles and helped make this a World Cup experience to remember and cherish.
A World Cup experience that really has been like no other.
Some 700million worldwide should tune in to tonight’s climax, many of whom may have gained only limited impression of what it’s meant to be here, or have the World Cup here, beyond that inevitable, incessant soundtrack drone.
For many, the World Cup will live on most in TV replays of Forlan, Villa or even unlucky Lampard strikes, or raging debates about where England, Italy or Brazil go from here, whether 4-4-2 can rise again or how to play like Spain rather than Switzerland.
But as pumped-up politicians here set set ambitious sights on the 2020 or 2024 Olympics, while London senses all attention now turning to our own, South Africa can reflect with relief on this summer’s refreshing success.
For all the fears, South Africa 2010 has been a declaration of not just competence but confidence, an exhilirating setting for that most seriously frivolous and frivolously serious pursuit of all: football.
And now that real referee’s whistle has finally blown, Sepp, Fifa and the World Cup-watching world can give some thanks back to South Africa for that.

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