BY TOM HUMPHRIES
So South Africa’s World Cup comes to an end, the beloved country’s “time to shine” runs out and this morning it’s back to the hump and grind of everyday living. As the sun rises, the flatbed trucks will take to the highways of Johannesburg, filled at the back with men from Soweto crouching and holding the side for balance as they are taken away for a day’s labour. Meanwhile, the world will be evacuating through Oliver Tambo International with the odd gratuity and thank you fluttering behind.
The more World Cups you go to, the more you feel you are part of an ongoing confidence trick. The South African people who have put so much of their heart and soul into the last month are really just extras with local accents. Backdrop.
Everything else takes place as part of a franchised operation which, while retaining its slickness, is only seen every four years. The media tent this is being written in could be anywhere in the world (in fact, it was imported from Germany, Fifa finding the local makes unsatisfactory). The hospitality tents outside. The system of shuttles and traffic control. The corporatised travel and accommodation operations. The crowd control. All the same. Even the interior of the stadiums feels the same.
The trick every four years is for the usual corporate bandits to fool the local population into believing this World Cup is theirs. And then to depart with the bill still on the table.
The stadiums here cost two billion rand more than they were supposed to and the host cities got to pick up the excess tabs. Can there ever be a World Cup without cost over-runs? Not really if you are selling steel and the man from the World Cup comes looking to buy as much steel as you can give him. Well, let’s just say you see him coming from a very long way away. The same if you are a labour leader.
And then you have to deal with Fifa. And their likes and dislikes. Fifa had €2.6 billion in TV and marketing rights tucked away before a ball was kicked here and unconfirmed reports suggest they retain 94 per cent of total profits.
The German World Cup yielded €2.3 billion in profits.
This World Cup will cough up more. You would think they would be happy.
Yet, for instance, Cape Town had wished to revamp the existing Athlone Stadium to host its World Cup Games. Athlone Stadium. Fifa did not approve. The surrounding area was too depressingly run down. TV wouldn’t like it. In Durban, a 56,000-seater World Cup stadium was constructed a couple of hundred yards away from the existing Kings Park Stadium, which holds 50,000.
Speaking of coming from a very long way away, the South African tourism industry was rubbing its hands at the prospect of attracting over three million tourists in their winter season.
No figures are available yet but every hotelier and taxi driver you speak to expresses disappointment.
Rightly so. Forecasts are down hugely since the heady days when the South African bid succeeded. Match AG, looking after the World Cup accommodation needs for the sixth tournament in a row, were forced to dump 450,000 pre-booked rooms back on the market.
The one place which is visibly thriving, stuffed all the time with tourists, is the white enclave of Sandton in Johannesburg; its fine restaurants and couture shops and American-style malls have been the official and unofficial centre for the World Cup. But Sandton didn’t need the World Cup. Sandton, they say, is the richest square mile in Africa.
For South Africa, the overall cost of running the tournament increased tenfold from bid to ball being kicked.
A nation crawling from the wreckage of recession with an unemployment rate of 24 per cent has chucked €4 billion in the direction of the world’s richest sport and its corporate partners.
And the corporate partners know how to use the muscle. In the World Cup zone you can only use an ATM if you have a Visa card. McDonalds are everywhere. This column attended a domestic league match here during a working visit eight years ago and the walk to the stadium was a long ramble and graze through a never-ending line of street vendors. For the World Cup, that particular flavour of Africa has been disappeared. Sponsors’ tents are the only thing selling anything within the commercial exclusion zone around the grounds.
The humourless nature of this pin-striped Mafia pervades everything. The heavy-handed treatment of the brewer Bavaria Beer for its amusing skirmishes was no surprise to those who had watched the local budget airline, Kulula, suffer the threat of legal action for using the mildly amusing slogan “the unofficial national carrier of you know what”. Even the acts which opened and closed the tournament to such high visibility were bought in from a international promoter with just a token smidgin of African music thrown in.
Africa has seen worse obscenities so some perspective is necessary but with 355,000 unsold tickets left in a country where the host population had neither the money nor the infrastructure to be ordering them online, the South African government (never the parasitical Fifa) were forced into buying huge swathes of tickets for their own people and selling them at hugely subsidised rates.
That move chomped a huge part of the revenue stream they had been depending on but it was better than having Fifa and its broadcast partners bellyaching about half-empty stadia.
People are backdrop.
So we take our leave today and tomorrow, waving goodbye and telling our friends they were great. Which they were.
This was an open-hearted and generous World Cup. But we are first worlders and mé féiners and it is impossible to escape the feeling that once again South Africa has been pillaged for our pleasure and gain.
Farewell then, South Africa. Hope you enjoyed having us. Hope you enjoyed being had by us.
(This article was first published on the irishtimes.com)