A promise of wealth and fame!
Martini, or no Martini, the party is on. The greatest show on earth has kicked off. No other event mobilises the masses in such a big way. An estimated 36 billion viewers tune in to watch the games throughout the football bonanza. The FIFA World Cup exalts nationalist feelings but is an agent and symbol of the forces of globalisation.
Nations slow down whenever their national team is playing. At times, World Cup fever reaches epidemic levels making us all believers in Neverland. Messi is the latest Peter Pan. Glued to our couches watching television we bask in "reflected glory". Football is about identity and involves quasi-religious elements such as rituals, ceremonies, symbols and sacred grounds. It is a combination of theatre and entertainment; an endless source of passion, excitement and frustration.
Football's universal nature gets people together. Wars have been stopped so that the combating sides could watch a football match. But it can also drive people apart. Paul Darby, in his essay on Africa's Place In FIFA's Global Order, sees football as a microcosm of real life "associated with inequality, disparity and conflict".
"Ke Nako" (Xhosa for "it's time") is the official slogan of the FIFA 2010 World Cup. It is time for South Africa to unleash its spirit, to shine and expose all its promise to the rest of the world. The young nation wants to prove itself, to shed stereotyped images relating to apartheid, poverty and violence. Football is the game of the black South Africans. Success on the field could go a long way to crystallise their collective confidence. After all, white South Africans have twice (1995 and 2007) been crowned world champions in their favourite sport: rugby.
Staging the FIFA World Cup in South Africa was an achievement of, and a tribute to, Nelson Mandela. It is ironic that Mr Mandela could not make it to the opening ceremony. A family tragedy (the death in a car crash of his 13-year -old great-granddaughter) kept him away from his last moment of glory; the start of a new chapter in the short history of his nation.
South Africa realised it could not afford to fail. Urged by FIFA, it spent lavishly on upgrading its infrastructure (airports, railways and hotels) as well as on state-of-the-art stadia. The country invested $6.4 billion, almost twice the original budget. A 54,000-strong security force was mobilised. Initially, it was estimated that the World Cup would attract some 750,000 visitors; probably only half of them will make it to South Africa. Now the country's leaders hope that the World Cup will enable them to spearhead an African renaissance, leading to increased tourism, trade and investment.
Undoubtedly, these leaders have taken a big gamble. Half of South Africa's population still live on less than $2 a day (the country has the world's highest economic disparity between rich and poor). One in every three workers is out of a job. Millions live in shantytowns and lack basic services such as water, drainage and electricity. Investment is badly needed for education, health and power generation. To finance the games, South Africa has had to borrow heavily. This debt legacy could crush the hopes of the poor people for a better future.
So it is legitimate to ask questions. What is the future of South Africa once all the nauseating vuvuzela horns go silent? What will happen to the outstanding stadia? Has football become the opium of the African people? It was sad to see the Bafana Bafana supporters leaving the stadium while their team was still playing Uruguay. A sense of disillusion and betrayal is already creeping in among the deprived classes. In Nelspruit, two schools were bulldozed to make way for the new stadium and the children had to content with alternative stuffy classrooms.
The message that this sends to African children is that school is not as important as football. After all, the beautiful game, like globalisation, promises wealth and fame. African kids dream about Roger Milla, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto'o, Michael Essien and a few others who earn big money playing for top European teams. Yet, no one tells them about the thousands of African players who end up among the declassified migrant workers in Europe.
Unless something goes terribly wrong, FIFA's decision to stage the competition in South Africa will help to strengthen its grip on the whole continent. For FIFA, Africa is an important emerging market and a source of talent and "cheap labour". FIFA has invested $430 million in staging the 2010 World Cup. Its revenue from broadcasting rights, marketing, sponsorships and ticketing is estimated at $3.5 billion. South Africa gets no share of this income. Net profits for FIFA from this year's World Cup are estimated at $2.5 billion. These profits are practically tax-free as FIFA has obtained an exemption from the South African government.
FIFA are the undisputed winners of the 2010 World Cup. For the sake of the South African people, let us hope that the gamble of their leaders will pay off. For the rest of us, it is just about another game. Enjoy.