South Africa faces challenges as World Cup approaches
"Here, ladies and gentlemen, the dream is now reality."
With these words, FIFA president Sepp Blatter did his best Tuesday in Durban, South Africa, to set the tone for the 100-day countdown to the World Cup opener in June.
But this is South Africa, where the drama is invariably unscripted.
Take the other night in Durban for example. A phalanx of police vehicles pressed through tight traffic, lights flashing and sirens ablaze. Commuters were squeezed to the sides of the road as a dozen police cars and motorcycles tore ahead to tackle a fast-brewing national emergency. Or, as it turned out, to accompany the national soccer team, Bafana Bafana to a local hotel.
A woman sitting outside was confounded. "I thought someone had died," she said.
South African authorities may be tempted to kill gnats with sledgehammers now, as they scramble to reassure tourists steeped in stories of a dysfunctional country crippled by crime, that everything is under control.
But like a besieged supply teacher resorting to martial law, the cracks don't take long to show. In the morning, the stylish new Moses Mabhida stadium was thronged with guards manning airport-style scanners and metal detectors. By the time Bafana Bafana began training in the afternoon, the high-security machines were simply switched off, and half the security crew had gone home.
Subtext to the 100-day countdown
If there is a subtext to the countdown to the World Cup though, it would seem to be this: 'Look, folks, we CAN put on a show. Okay, it's no Beijing. But it's not Baghdad, either.'
So a bungee jumper duly flung himself from the rafters, helicopters whipped round the stadium flying South Africa's flags, and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe led his peers, the press, and the players, in a solemn rendition of the five-language national anthem.
South Africa, stung by years of bad press on crime rates and an apparent lack of preparation, is racing to clean house for the half-million guests due to arrive in June and July.
The streets of Durban and Johannesburg are being ripped up in a frenzy of construction. There are more workers at Durban's beaches than bathers. Police too, are in a hurry, training more than 40,000 recruits.
With most stadiums up and running, Irvin Khosa, chairman of the 2010 Local Organising Committee, went so far as to say, "We are three months ahead of schedule!"
Well, not quite.
Problems do persist
More than 600,000 tickets remain unsold. Workers are still putting finishing touches to Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, site of the World Cup final — and the opener against Mexico.
The pitch at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, in the northeast of the country, has to be redone. And Bafana Bafana has had to change training grounds at the last moment because their facilities weren't ready.
While football giants Spain, Portugal and Brazil fancy their trophy chances, everyone wonders whether South Africa will make it past the first round.
But today, there's no room for such talk. Mzion Mofokeng of the South African Football Supporter Association is counting on the ultimate home court advantage.
"Our ancestors will be in our company to make sure our boys have direction," he said.
"In front there, we'll be scoring goals. They will help them in defence, you know, to tackle, and they will help our goalkeeper to make those magnificent saves. So there is no way that Bafana Bafana cannot be seen ending up in the semi-finals."
The celebrations this week would have you believe South Africa has already made it.
FIFA officials inspecting facilities throughout the country have announced broad approval, and Blatter said the long lasting "love affair" between FIFA and South Africa, which began with his personal campaign to hold the first World Cup tournament on African soil in 1998, has finally culminated in a "marriage" today.
Almost as an after-thought, Motlanthe added that we should just put our money on Bafana Bafana.
Sure, that's ceremonial posturing. But that's the point. For only 100 more days, fans can continue to proclaim with total confidence, that their team will uproot the opposition. That they will benefit from fair winds, and the spiritual power of their ancestors.
This may be the best part of the World Cup, where dreams remain intact, unperturbed by stats, schedules and scores. Where sports teams are as yet unbowed by defeat or self-doubt.
Who could possibly look forward to something that would change all that?