South Africans self-conscious about low turnout at Confederations Cup

Empty seats cause embarrassment for the soccer tournament's host country as it prepares for the World Cup next June.

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JOHANNESBURG – It’s only a game, right?

Wrong.

The just-begun Confederations Cup, in which all of the world’s top soccer teams compete for the biggest prize ahead of next year’s World Cup, has suddenly become a national obsession for South Africans – and their obsession is not always focused on how the home team performs.

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Sports events here have become as important a gauge of whether a government is doing its job effectively.

On talk-radio and in newspapers, South Africans are debating just how this Confederations Cup makes South Africa look to the world, and whether the country can really get its act together for the 2010 World Cup. That is why, in a nation with nearly 40 percent unemployment and deteriorating hospitals and schools, there is suddenly more attention on empty stadiums, sluggish bus transport from stadiums to hotels, and a massive crackdown on beggars and streetside hawkers at sports venues.

Today, the Congress of South African Trades Unions (COSATU) raised alarm bells about the “embarrassing” emptiness of South African stadiums, particularly in the first game of South Africa vs. Iraq. While fans at the game managed to fill Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium with a cacophonous roar of their plastic-trumpet “vuvuzelas,” they barely managed to fill even the bottom-most tier of the seats. South Africa’s team, the Bafana Bafana, fought to a scoreless draw against the Iraqis. (Turnout was higher for the US-Italy and British-Egypt soccer games.)

COSATU “urgently calls upon South Africans to buy more tickets and attend the Confederations Cup matches in greater numbers,” said the trade union spokesman, Patrick Craven. COSATU forms part of a tripartite alliance with the ruling party, the African National Congress. “The low turnouts at some matches have been a serious embarrassment to the country and must be improved upon if we are to demonstrate to the world our passion for soccer, and to remove any doubts about our commitment to the 2010 World Cup tournament.”

There may be many reasons for the low-turnout, including cold weather and the fact that there is also a once-every-4-years British Lions rugby tour, with South Africa’s top teams playing against a superteam of British and Irish players.

Football tourism – remember, it’s only Americans who call it soccer – has already had a huge effect in South Africa.

As the world remains mired in recession, the construction of stadiums, hotels, roads, and flyovers and new airport terminals have created thousands of jobs and generated income that has cushioned the effects of the global slowdown.

But sports is about pride, and while few South Africans hold out hope that their team will keep the Confederations Cup at home this year – some doubt they can make it past Spain on Sunday – all eyes are watching, anxiously, how South Africa portrays itself to the world.

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