Is South Africa Ready?

Hosting a World Cup sounds like an absolutely brilliant idea on paper, much in the same way as the idea of buying a bar after you've had too many drinks. Very few follow through with the idea and even less actually make it happen. When South Africa were selected to host the pinnacle of football back in 2007, they knew what they were going into. They had lost the 2006 tournament bid by a hair and since only African bids were accepted, they were the favourites all along to host it, which they did. Of the ten stadiums used in the World Cup, six were brand new and the others suffered renovations. But you still have to build new roads, supporting infrastructures, maybe some hotels and upgrade all the training venues so you can meet FIFA specifications. It all sounds like a massive bother, and it probably was, but the truth is that the World Cup was a great success and organized in brilliant fashion. It was so well-organized in fact, that Sepp Blatter gave the organization a 9/10 and said it could be a Plan B for future competitions. Rewind to 2006. Libya made a bid to host the (at that time) 2014 African Cup of Nations. Back then, the country was still being led by more than mental dictator Muammar Gaddafi. They won it and all was well, so it seemed.

Zip forward to 2011 and Mr Gaddafi found himself shot and killed by rebels in the ongoing Civil War. CAF had already made the decision to organize the AFCON in odd-numbered years, so it didn’t clash with the Euros or the Olympic Games, and were forced to make a host change, as Libya quite clearly wouldn’t be able to achieve peace and host the competition properly in under two years.

Libya’s June 11 stadium. Not exactly up to par.

Nigeria had been named reserve hosts of the 2010-2013/4 AFCONs, in case something went wrong, back in 2006. However, CAF had another look at things and since South Africa had organized a World Cup so well, surely they should be able to host a “smaller” event with ease. Nigeria would have to build all the infrastructures.

So in September 2011, South Africa was chosen to host the 2013 competition. That left them with a year and four months to prepare a championship that in regular circumstances would take twice that time.

The final list of the stadia to be used was only announced in May. For reference, the list of stadiums to be used in the World Cup was released in 2006. Sure, they didn’t have to build them, but it’s still rather late.

The stadiums that will be used are:

  • National Stadium (aka Soccer City aka FNB Stadium) in Johannesburg – 84,490 capacity
  • Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban – 54,000 capacity (expandable)
  • Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth – 48,000 capacity
  • Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit – 41,000 capacity
  • Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenberg – 42,000 capacity

You look at this list and you can spot one big problem: Where is Cape Town? The closest stadium to it is in Port Elizabeth, which is almost 800 km away. So if you do live on the west coast of South Africa, you’re not going to have the chance to see any of the games live, unless you have a private jet or embark on a road trip. Bad planning there.

About the stadiums that will be used, only the National Stadium, Moses Mabhida and the Royal Bafokeng see regular football, as they are the homes of Kaizer Chiefs, AmaZulu and Platinum Stars, respectively. The other two have been used mostly for rugby, with the occasional football match being held by Bafana Bafana or a local team when they face more popular clubs.

This can cause an issue with the pitches. The AFCON has never been famous for its pitches, either because they were too dry or they were overused, like last year. Even though these new pitches are designed to support heavy usage, rugby is a pitch killer and can cause some problems. The National Stadium also has a small pitch dilemma. After hosting Linkin Park and Lady Gaga concerts in the same month, the pitch suffered terribly, with the left side of the field being filled with patches of dirt and crushed grass and the last time I saw it, before the South African league winter break last month, it still hadn’t fully recovered, so it’s a bit of a concern there.

Another situation that might be worrisome is attendance. Last year the AFCON suffered from shocking attendance figures, with only the final being able to bring the stadium up to full capacity. It was so bad that the match between Sudan and Burkina Faso had an attendance of 132 people. You can find better figures in the seventh tier of English football.

Who doesn’t every game to look like this?

Perhaps with a wealthier and more appealing country the figures will coincide with the greatness of this competition. There is nothing better than the sight of a packed Soccer Ci… sorry, National Stadium, but there’s already been reports of problems in buying tickets, which already came out late due to the legal dispute over the name of National Stadium. People can’t seem to buy them online and most of the shops that are supposed to have them don’t.

Along with that, there seems to be little media hype, especially around Port Elizabeth and Rustenberg, cities that almost certainly won’t host Bafana Bafana matches, with very few posters being displayed along the cities. However, I was a member of the organization of a couple of international events last year and I can almost guarantee that, as you read this, there is a man walking around a room talking vigorously on the phone asking someone about how to fix the ticket situation and another equally stressed man awaiting a call from someone that’ll tell him when the posters are going to be put up. Still, it probably best to just buy the tickets on the day of the match itself at the stadium, at least you’ll be sure that they are fine.

Organizing a tournament of this magnitude is one hell of a headache and having less than 18 months doesn’t help. Despite all this, I’m confident that South Africa will be able to produce a fantastic tournament. They have great-looking arenas, terrific weather (hopefully) and like all of Africa, brilliant people. All it needs is for them to sit inside the stadium.

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