10 July 2010
Tomorrow's FIFA (world football association) World Cup final will unite a billion people in a shared global experience. What the great Brazilian footballer Pele called 'the beautiful game' is now undoubtedly the world's favourite sporting entertainment, a multi-billion pound global business and a major cultural phenomenon. Love it or hate it, football affects the lives of millions of people around the world.
What's its secret? Well, according to George Weah, former Liberian footballer, FIFA World Footballer of the Year and possibly Africa's finest ever player: "Football gives a suffering people joy".
Hosting the World Cup has been a mixture of joy and frustration for South Africans. To stage such a prestigious global event has been a 'triumph' according to Desmond Tutu. For sure, the government and the nation have won great prestige for the organisational success and superb venues. The tournament has also boosted the sense of dignity and confidence of millions of citizens, proud to have brought the world to their new nation. The impressive performances of Ghana's team also united supporters across Africa, enhancing their shared sense of Africanness.
It has been less than joyous for some other South Africans. The construction of new stadiums has caused widespread dissatisfaction amongst many poor black communities. According to Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu–Natal, (in Red Pepper magazine), more than a thousand pupils demonstrated against Mbombela stadium when schools displaced in the construction programme were not rebuilt. Markets which have traditionally served football crowds were banned as police enforced the government's agreement with FIFA that only FIFA endorsed items could be advertised within a one kilometer radius of stadiums – a deal estimated to bring FIFA an astonishing £2.2 billion. Riot police used tear gas against world cup stewards protesting over alleged pay cuts. Other World Cup related protests have been held against construction companies and local authorities and many peaceful protests have been banned.
New stadium locations were carefully chosen to create a positive image of the tournament and of South Africa. The £380 million stadium in Cape Town could have been built more cheaply, nearer supporters, but this was rejected according to a FIFA official because "a billion TV viewers don't want to see shacks and poverty on this scale".
Costs have spiraled. Durban's new stadium, budgeted at £160 million, will cost £275 million. The tournament may cost South Africa as much as £3.2 billion, leaving it with several stadiums which may never again be filled. Estimates of returns to the national economy have been considerably scaled down. Little of the generated wealth from the tournament is expected to trickle down to South Africa's poor, in one of the most unequal societies in the world.
The biggest winners of the 2010 World Cup will be the global corporations which secured the construction contracts for grounds and infrastructure upgrading, local entrepreneurs and the global brands which used the tournament as a televised shop window.
Some of the inequalities and social tensions in South Africa have been contained or disguised while the world's eye has been on the World Cup. But when the tournament is over and the euphoria has dissipated the real issues will remain.
Football certainly brings joy, however transient, but there is a danger that this joy can obscure more enduring problem. With its millionaire Premier League players, rising club debts and seat prices, multi-million pound TV and sponsorship deals, and its power to clinch lucrative deals with tournament-hosting governments - not always to the benefit of ordinary local people – is football is becoming a global business beyond the influence of supporters and regulators? It's disturbing, but for now let's share the joy and settle down for Spain vs Holland. What a pity Ghana didn't get there. Now, where did I leave my vuvuzela?