In less than a month the first ball will be booted in the Soccer World Cup, but the contest has, in fact, long been joined. From the first day six years ago that South Africa was named as host, there has been a bitter battle between two implacable foes — the Pollyannas and the Eeyores.
The Pollyannas, the official, government-sponsored team, view the World Cup more as a miracle cure for all national ills than a sports tournament. They count on it to quell racial squabbling and to deliver jobs, national glory and international esteem.
At one stage the Pollyannas also looked forward to feasting on half-a-million fans whose foreign currency would be mercilessly extracted by means of outrageously priced accommodation, air travel, car hire and restaurants. But a drop in the projected number and the Dracula-like ability of the Fifa to siphon revenue from associated activities, has put paid to that fantasy.
Then there is the Eeyore team, whose players’ article of faith is that Fifa had made a huge mistake in awarding the event to SA.
The stadiums would never be ready on time and if by some miracle they were, there would be no electricity to light them. As one irretrievably gloomy prognosticator, RW Johnson, put it: “It is now clear that if the World Cup is held in SA … it will occur in a country where most services work only spasmodically.”
The prevalence of violent crime mean that few overseas soccer fans would travel to SA or, if they dared to, they would be hijacked, raped, robbed and killed. A British tabloid warned of machete-wielding black gangs hunting down whites, while a manufacturer of stab-proof vests parlayed the hysteria into sales of its products in national team colours.
It is not clear why football fans should be more vulnerable than the couple of hundred thousand rugby and cricket fans who have over the years emerged unscathed from events in SA. Nor is it clear why almost 10 million tourists a year, of which 2.2 million are from outside Africa, continue to take such risks.
Another apparent impediment is the taxi drivers opposed to the new mass transit systems for fans. They are likely to express their displeasure with petrol bombs, drive-by shootings and “occasional hand grenades thrown into bus queues”.
Conspiracists on the Eeyore team at one stage predicted that the fixture draw would be rigged to ensure SA an easy passage. Some of the numbered plastic balls used in the draw would be pre-heated in an oven, thus guaranteeing that they would bubble to the top. When the “oven plot” patently failed and SA got a tough draw, they changed tack: SA would be the first host nation to fail to get through the first round, dampening public support.
Only the rich can afford the tickets, which means that so few will be sold that Fifa will have to give tickets away or even pay spectators to attend. In any case, SA soccer fans are not “cosmopolitan enough” to queue and pay to watch games featuring any of the less-fancied teams.
One foreign correspondent fancifully warned his animal-loving British readers that each game would be preceded “by the ritual slaughter of an animal — probably a bullock or a goat — out on the pitch”. He went on to conclude dramatically: “A great ship is steering straight for the rocks … insisting no danger lies ahead. The disaster which threatens deserves only one adjective: titanic.”
Dare one predict that Soccer World Cup will be neither miracle-cure nor disaster? Just a marvellous sporting spectacle in an extraordinarily beautiful and hospitable country, enviously watched on television by half the globe.