In South Africa, the Cup is no game
The country took suggestions that it was behind on World Cup preparations for 2010 as a national insult, saying that such claims undermined its interests.
JOHANNESBURG, south Africa
A word to the wise: Any public statement about South Africa will be seen through the lens of race, even if it is about something as harmless as sports.Skip to next paragraph
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This lesson was learned recently by Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, the president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world's governing body for soccer.
Egged on by a persistent BBC radio reporter at a press conference in London late last month, Mr. Blatter admitted that FIFA had alternate locations for its 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, which is currently schedule to be hosted by South Africa.
Blatter's statement made headlines on sports pages worldwide, a perceived warning to South Africa to speed up its seemingly sluggish preparations, or else risk losing the World Cup.
South African officials were apoplectic. FIFA officials were apologetic. A follow-on FIFA statement reaffirmed that except in case of a "natural disaster or catastrophe… there is no such a thing as a contingency plan. The plan B has been and will continue to be South Africa."
A matter of pride
The imbroglio may have been settled for now, but the exchange speaks volumes about South Africa's sense of pride, as a rising African economic and political power, and its somewhat touchy attitude toward criticism, as a post-apartheid nation ruled by its black majority.
That South Africa is behind schedule in construction, compared with past World Cup host nations such as South Korea and Germany, is not the question. Many experts admit it is. But the South African government seems to regard questions about its ability to hold a world-class soccer match as unpatriotic, and even racist.
"Once again our media have ignored facts to cast doubt where others have shown confidence in us as a country," said Themba Maseko, a government spokesman, at a press conference in the capital city of Tshwane (formerly called Pretoria) last week.
"Some of the reports indicate a failure or an inability to interrogate and check the facts before rushing to print sensationalist headlines, thereby, behaving in a manner that potentially undermined the interests of all South Africans who could be served by hosting a successful World Cup tournament," he said.
South Africa clearly has its work cut out for it. Originally planning to use its network of massive rugby stadiums to host the 2010 World Cup, the South African government changed its mind to build five new stadiums and billions of dollars of infrastructure projects around the country, leaving a legacy of post-apartheid renewal.
Some $2.1 billion will be spent on infrastructure by the time the World Cup matches begin in mid-2010, more than half of that on the refurbishment of existing stadiums and the construction of five new stadiums.
The race to build by 2010
Some of these venues, such as the Green Point stadium in Cape Town and a stadium in the northern city of Polokwane, have just begun construction in the past month.