With the final match between Spain and Netherlands looming tonight, the World Cup is almost over. Day in and day out, South Africa has shown itself to be every bit as capable as Germany, Athens, or Beijing to hold a major sports event. The skeptics were many, and the skeptics were wrong.
Three hundred thousand foreign visitors came to these games, and while not all of them were happy with their team’s performance – this isn’t kindergarten, where everyone comes out a winner – most of them have gone home safe and sound, and impressed with the host nation.
This wasn’t the script that the tabloid press had written for this event. One British tabloid interviewed drugged up gang leaders in Cape Town, and predicted that armed gangs would swoop down on the helpless tourists like hyenas at a school picnic. Others predicted that unions would go on strike – they very nearly did – or that Al Qaeda cells would target the US and English teams. Agence France-Presse even warned about the baboons of Cape Point, south of Cape Town, which have a rather unpleasant habit of breaking into cars and stealing food from tourists.
While it’s entirely possible that a tourist or two lost an orange to a baboon, the worst predictions didn’t play out. Despite having one of the highest crime rates in the world, the only crimes of note were when an American backpacker got a gunshot injury in the wrong part of town, and when the housekeeping staff stole the undies of the English team. (Five of the staff were subsequently arrested, tried, and sentenced to three years in jail.)
Sepp Blatter, the chairman of FIFA, praised South Africa for its handling of the World Cup. Rejecting criticism about the quality of football and the empty seats in some stadiums, Mr. Blatter told the British Radio program 5 Live, "It was a World Cup in a new continent with new culture and therefore it must be analyzed on different levels. If you look at the enthusiasm in South Africa and the TV audiences around the world then it was a special World Cup."
Now, when the honest section of the press writes about the World Cup games, the stories practically glow with positivism.
Among the best of these was a piece by the Guardian’s Johannesburg bureau chief David Smith, who noted that “low expectations were the hosts' greatest gift. When Armageddon did not happen and smiling crowds flocked to world-class stadiums, it was hailed as a glorious surprise, if not another rainbow nation miracle…”
Businesswise, FIFA does seem to have come out the winner in this World Cup, having pocketed $3.2 billion. But while the South African economy has received about $5 billion in overall revenues from the World Cup (about the same amount the country spent on stadiums, roads, and airports), South Africa may be the ultimate winners in the long term. The country has made a lasting impression on the fans who came here, and who will now tell their friends and family how gorgeous the place is.
The most valid complaint was about transport to and from games. Narrow roads to faraway stadiums like Rustenberg, and poorly-organized buses for taking fans from the parking lots to the stadiums and back meant that some fans missed games. Hundreds of fans missed the Germany-Spain semifinal game in Durban last week because there weren’t enough parking bays at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport to accommodate all the planes.
The skepticism has not all been external, and South Africans who are frustrated with the behavior of their government officials projected the same unresponsiveness, ineptitude, and venality onto the World Cup Local Organizing Committee and on the World Cup’s governing body, the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA).
Perhaps the greatest result of these games was not a scissor-kick goal, or a booming South African economy, but rather a boost of confidence. Despite all the odds, South Africa can set its mind to do something, and do it well.