Will South Africa be ready to stage the World Cup?
The 2009 Confederations Cup is a chance for hosts to allay fears
It's the question that continues to hound South Africa: will it be ready to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
South Africa won the right to host the World Cup in 2004, but ever since the country has been dogged by questions about its ability to overhaul its public transport system, update city infrastructure and increase hotel capacity to handle the flood of soccer fans from around the world that will invade the country next summer.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter last year was forced to shoot down rumours that the World Cup would be taken away and awarded to another country after word began to circulate that South Africa's venues won't be ready in time. Five new stadiums are being built from scratch, while five exisiting stadiums are being upgraded.
After several visits to the country, Blatter has repeatedly proclaimed that South Africa is on schedule and will be ready to stage the World Cup.
Although genuine worry persists, journalist Mark Gleeson, the world's leading African soccer expert, believes concerns will be allayed when South Africa hosts the FIFA Confederations Cup this month.
A dress rehearsal for 2010
From June 14-28, eight of the top national teams in the world, including 2006 World Cup winners Italy and reigning European champions Spain, will play 16 games in four cities across South Africa in a round-robin tournament that is very much a dress rehearsal for next year.
"The event is really designed as a test run for the World Cup. In essence, [it allows] FIFA to assuage people's doubts and concerns, and at the same time it gives a bit of a lift to the local organizing committee," Gleeson told CBCSports.ca over the phone from Cape Town.
Public perception of South Africa as an inefficient country still struggling in the post-Apartheid era is unmerited, Gleeson says.
"Organizers have to deal with this ad nauseum questioning of can they do it? If people spent a few days here, they'd realize those questions are far-fetched and unfair. I don't recall anyone asking Germany if they would be ready to host the World Cup three years ago," Gleeson said
He believes South Africa, like Greece prior to the 2004 Olympics, will overcome what he calls a "southern European pessimism" and will stage a flawless World Cup.
"I think there's an uber-pessimism, per se, that puts South Africa on the back foot, in much there's a southern European pessimism that was pervasive before the Athens Olympics," stated Gleeson.
"There was this attitude of 'the latins can't pull off the Olympics' and so Athens was always going to be a big mess, and it turned out to be a wonderful Olympics."
That being said, he concedes South Africa does have some legitimate work to do to improve its public image ahead of next summer's World Cup.
"I think South Africa starts out on the bad foot. It's not given any extra play by the fact that this country has one of the worst crime records in the world, or that it's got a rather strange president who has just taken power, so as a P.R. exercise the Confederations Cup is pretty important," Gleeson explained.
Soccer vs. Rugby
Gleeson also believes the Confederations Cup will serve another useful purpose, namely spreading the gospel of the "beautiful game" in a country where rugby is the No. 1 sport.
"Maybe it also gives a suggestion to the locals about the depth of the World Cup and how big of an event it's really going to be because I think people here don't actually realize how massive the World Cup actually is," opined Gleeson.
Although soccer is, by far, the most popular sport in Africa, Gleeson said it's hard to measure whether the continent as a whole is behind the World Cup coming to South Africa.
"Politically and in various forums there's a lot of talk about it, and I think the average African is quite proud but it hasn't any feel or touch on him in the way that Sepp Blatter likes to suggest," said Gleeson.
"The average African doesn't have the money to travel. Not everyone has disposable income and the vast majority of Africans don't have disposable income and live on a day-to-day basis.
"It's not really measurable because African fans are not going to physically vote with their feet at the World Cup. They're not going to be able to come here."