Concerns increase for South Africa's ability to host World Cup
FIFA's decision to drop Port Elizabeth as a venue for the Confederations Cup next year is, on the surface, far from a cause for crisis. But given the negativity pervading South Africa's preparations to host the 2010 World Cup, it does come as an embarrassment.
Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Bay stadium was the only new venue among the five planned for the eight-nation Confederations tournament, which will serve as a vital test for the big event, Africa's first World Cup.
The other stadiums, in Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Rustenburg, needed only renovations to be ready for the smaller tournament and were obvious choices. Port Elizabeth was included because it was the first of the proposed new venues for 2010 at which construction had begun, and project managers and the coastal city's leaders promised it would take under two years to complete.
That, as is now clear, was pure fantasy. Port Elizabeth had already been given a generous extension for completion -- until March 30 next year, just 11 weeks before the Confederations Cup starts on June 14. When it became apparent that this new deadline would not be met, FIFA brought down the axe.
The delay stems from the city's belated decision to add a roof to the venue. This is being made in the Middle East, from where it has to be shipped to South Africa, all eating into a schedule that was tight anyway. It reveals an alarming lack of coordination and comes on top of some other elementary bungling.
To be fair, Port Elizabeth's sidelining for the 2009 tournament should have no impact on the World Cup itself, and the construction of the stadium should be finished well before the December '09 deadline for the 10 venues to be completed. But it does little to lift the Afro pessimism regarding the finals, which was deepened by recent comments from Sepp Blatter.
The FIFA president, who has steadily defended South Africa in the past, admitted for the first time that his organization was considering possible alternative hosts for 2010. On the eve of the Euro 2008 final in Vienna, Austria, he said: "I would be a very negligent president if I hadn't put away in a drawer somewhere a Plan B." A week later, when asked about which countries could step into the breach, Blatter did not name names but said: "I have spoken to ... three associations and countries that would be able to stage the World Cup in one year's time. They need one year."
FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke, leading the visit to South Africa to assess preparations for the Confederations Cup, had sought to calm fears that the World Cup might be moved. Valcke claimed that Blatter was contemplating a switch only if a specific situation occurred, such as the SARS epidemic in China six years ago, when FIFA was obliged to move the Women's World Cup to the U.S. for safety reasons.
Nevertheless, Port Elizabeth is a public relations disaster for South Africa's World Cup organizing committee, who are clueless in the spin department.
There has been an almost constant questioning of the country's readiness and suitability to stage the finals, fueled in recent months by political instability, xenophobic riots, high levels of crime and labor disputes.
The South Africans have admitted the costs of the World Cup will be double their initial estimate. In fact, there are suggestions that the final bill will be for around $1 billion, a massive drain on the public purse in a country where many people are still without adequate housing and basic services such as water and electricity.
There is uncertainty in the political world, with Jacob Zuma -- the favorite to succeed state president Thabo Mbeki -- about to go on trial for fraud. Recently more than 50 foreigners were killed in xenophobic attacks, mostly on poor migrants from politically unstable neighbor Zimbabwe. Crime is a constant problem in the country, and the World Cup itself has been affected by the persistent labor problems -- recently, striking workers burned several vehicles and a security hut on the site of the new Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit.
But the organizing committee consistently says the stadiums will be ready in good time and, with the rest of the country resembling a giant building site as airports, railway lines, hotels and roads are readied for the finals, there are still hopes that South Africa can serve up a top-class World Cup, overcoming all the obvious problems in much the same way as the Athens Olympics proved detractors wrong.
The Confederations Cup will now be much more than a warm-up event. Since Blatter has said any decision on changing the World Cup venue would be made after next year's tournament, it now becomes the potential crossroads for a country who had hoped for so much more when they first went into the World Cup bidding race more than a decade ago.
This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.