World Cup Whose Meaning Goes Beyond Soccer
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CAPE TOWN -- Arriving here, it is impossible to ignore the signals that, when South Africa plays host to the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, the event will seize its imagination, plumb its soul and stretch its purse-strings.
A new stadium has arisen in the upscale Green Point neighborhood on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean here, and others in many places across the land. Highways are being built and remodeled.
With passion verging on obsession, newspapers debate whether the Durban beachfront, to the east, should, really, have been torn up at the height of the vacation season for a World Cup makeover; or whether World Cup advertisers should bathe Table Mountain's great, gray wall -- for centuries a marker of safe haven to mariners from across the seas -- in colored lights, beacons of less perilous voyages to the shopping mall.
There is talk, too, of invoking older traditions requiring that animals be sacrificed in the presence of praise-singers and warriors to bless soccer stadiums. The beautiful game, as aficionados describe their passion, is not the only contest as the nation braces for the fray.
However ferocious or artful the maneuvers on the pitch, there will be an equally compelling collision of expectations between South Africa's soaring ambitions for the tournament and the dystopian doubts and questions that consume the skeptics.
Is the tournament worth the diversion of energy and money away from the poor and disadvantaged? Will South Africa be able to deliver an event untainted by the country's notorious crime, creeping xenophobia and social unease?
Fifteen years into its first democracy, in other words, South Africa itself will be on trial as much as the teams, facing a particular scrutiny as the ambassador of a continent painted by outsiders as a canvas of serial failure, daubed with pestilence, war and decline.
Of course, the great global jousts of international competition are never just about sport, turning nations into combatants requiring the most prestigious of champions. Remember, just last September, President Barack Obama's journey to Copenhagen to bid -- unsuccessfully -- on behalf of Chicago for the 2016 Olympics.
As much as they provide a platform for athletic prowess, sporting spectaculars showcase a nation's sense of itself and the power of its dreams: witness the regimented pyrotechnics of Beijing in the 2008 Olympics, or the supremacist choreography of the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Berlin (defied, of course, by Jesse Owens). And after the dream comes the wake-up, as in Athens following the 2004 Olympics, when facilities built as theaters for the drama of gold and glory linger as forlorn monuments to national hubris.
Even measured against those yardsticks, the 2010 World Cup -- the first on the African continent -- will have a unique flavor, distilled from a tortured history that has tugged its host between the isolation and opprobrium of the past and the triumphs and tripwires of democracy.
In the apartheid era, international boycotts of white-dominated South African teams gnawed at the self-esteem of the ruling Afrikaner elite, reinforcing their status as global pariahs. For many among the black majority, the national sporting teams, known as the Springboks, were no more than totems of oppression.
Just as racial division coursed through the nation, those same distinctions reached into individual sports: rugby was largely played by whites, while the black majority reserved its enthusiasm for soccer -- a memory that adds a special piquancy to the 2010 tournament.
Then came sport as healer.
After the election in 1994, Nelson Mandela startled his followers by embracing the still-reviled Springbok rugby team in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a drama portrayed in a new movie, "Invictus," starring Morgan Freeman. Mr. Mandela went much further than some formal politicians' endorsement.
By wearing the gold and green Springbok jersey that had once seemed to be apartheid's banner, Mr. Mandela nudged reluctant and fearful whites toward acceptance of the new rainbow nation he was seeking to build.
Such moments contributed to South Africa's self-image as exceptional, a can-do land capable of miracles, blessed by what columnist Peter Fabricius in The Cape Times called a "rare combination of political and economic clout and impeccable moral credentials." Even in the old apartheid era, the country's white rulers depicted their dominance as rooted in a divine covenant.
South Africa, indeed, has cast the World Cup as an epochal event for all of Africa. In 2007, former President Thabo Mbeki said the contest "will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo," enabling historians to look back on "a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict."
Yet there are those who see the World Cup as a blunder, ill-conceived and wasteful, pandering to outsiders at the expense of South Africa's own citizens.
"We've already witnessed a brutal crackdown on shack dwellers, street traders, homeless people, street children, sex workers and the organized poor that is likely to get worse as evictions escalate and the police do more shooting-to-kill in the run-up to the World Cup," Richard Pithouse, an academic at Rhodes University, wrote in a recent Web posting.
"We could have mobilized all the money and political will invested in the World Cup for houses, schools, libraries, parks, crèches, hospitals and sports facilities in every part of every city."
But some maintain that such arguments ignore the big picture, the prospect for jobs, investment, optimism, a new mood to persuade cynics that this continent has escaped its demons and its stereotypes.
"We want to show that Africa's time has come," Mr. Mbeki said in 2007.
In June 2010, that promise falls due.
First Published December 29, 2009 2:00 am