The World Cup is the the world's greatest sporting event.
For an entire month, people from every corner of the globe are riveted by these world class athletes and the magic they perform with their feet, their head and a ball. This is why Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns heads to New York City every summer to play in the city's many soccer leagues and why people everywhere are cramming into bars, clubs, stadiums and pubic squares at insane hours to cheer for their national or adopted favorite team.
Goals are infrequent. They are hard earned, generally by the creative and brilliant work of many. As a result they are more valued than even the home run which has been almost commonplace through a combination of weight training and chemicals
I love the competition, the international camaraderie and the brilliance of athletes like Messi, Park Ji-Sung, Rooney and Howard. But in a country as poor and unequal as South Africa, it is hard to justify the costs of hosting the games. Once they are over and the cheering stops, South Africa will be left with enormous debts in addition to its overwhelming social and economic problems.
This is the first World Cup played on African Soil. But the claims that it is an "African" event ring hollow. In reality it is a sanitized spectacle run by and for multinational corporations and global elites.
Whether the administrators and sponsors like it or not, the games are highlighting the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
Take, for example, Royal Bafokeng Stadium, where England and the US met on Saturday night. It cost $82 million to build, and its recently refurbished stands are hosting business executives from some of the world's biggest corporations. While they live it up at the World Cup, in the surrounding 29 villages that make up the tiny Bafokeng kingdom within South Africa, most live in abject poverty despite the region's platinum wealth.
South African sociologist Chris Bowman writes in the Harvard Business Review:
Relying on tax subsidies, the South African organizers have built five world-class stadiums, renovated two existing football stadiums and a further three rugby stadiums, and made additional significant infrastructure changes — all at a cost in excess of 30 billion South African rand, double what was predicted in 2006.
This is in a country where poverty is extreme: The Gini coefficient of income inequality, a metric on a zero-to-one scale with higher numbers representing greater disparity, has risen from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.70 in 2008 (the U.S., for comparison, is at 0.45). Racial apartheid has been replaced by class apartheid and unemployment hovers around 40%.
Scarce public resources have been diverted from much-needed public projects to a spectacle that generates significant revenue — but mainly for FIFA, football's governing body, and big corporations. In presenting FIFA with a "risk-free opportunity on African soil," to quote their bid, the South African organizers structured the tournament so as to allow FIFA to generate vast profits through marketing and broadcasting rights.
The result: The 2010 World Cup is already proving lucrative for FIFA — Jerome Valcke, the organization's secretary general, recently announced that income has increased by 50% since the last event.
But the economic benefits for South Africans will be very slim. In fact, many citizens — indeed, many Africans of all nationalities — will be excluded, due to expensive tickets and a complicated ticketing system. Though less than 10% of the South African population has internet access, tickets were initially sold online. Local traders have been barred from selling food, beverages, and soccer merchandise outside the stadiums. Local factories were not even awarded the contract to produce the official mascot, Zakumi — instead, the work went to a factory in Shanghai.
The 2010 World Cup has gotten off to splendid start with large enthusiastic crowds and stirring performances. With favorites like Brazil and the Ivory Coast yet to play and stars like Kaka and Ronaldo working their magic, these games, despite the controversy over the ball and the noise of the vuvuzelas,, are meeting the expectations of football fans everywhere.
The games have also generated enormous enthusiasm among South Africans who are justifiably proud of hosting the event on African soil for the first time. But after the games are over and the money is counted, very little will flow back to the South African communities that need it the most.