By Tim Vickery
May 26, 2010

"Our society," said British writer Johann Hari, "is very good at some things, generating wealth, say ... But we are very bad at meeting a basic human need for shared collective experiences. Our atomized lonely culture can only meet this need at freak flashpoints." Or World Cups.

"While the ball is rolling, the world is happy," said ex-FIFA president Joao Havelange. For a month in June and July the planet will be gripped by the 19th version of the biggest party going, the universal language of soccer spoken with hundreds of different accents in bars and at bus stops all over the globe. There are plenty of reasons to sit back and enjoy it. But are there enough to justify all the headaches and expense of staging the thing? Should South Africa really be spending over $6 billion on the event while many of its population survive on little more than $210 a month?

Danny Jordaan certainly thinks so. He was part anti-apartheid campaigner, part sports administrator. Now he is CEO of the South Africa 2010 organizing committee, and just a few weeks away from seeing a dream come true.

Jordaan's efforts to bring the World Cup to South Africa began in 1994, underwent the disappointment of narrowly losing out on 2006 before being rewarded for 2010. A slogan has guided his struggle -- "We don't describe the future we see, we see the future we describe." His vision has been one where the work needed to stage the tournament should be part of sustained growth, and where staging such an event will definitively secure his country's place as a respected member of the international community.

Historian Peter Alegi views the whole thing as "a very expensive -- and very expansive -- branding operation. The World Cup is an opportunity to show that South Africa is a modern democracy, technologically advanced, business friendly and also an attractive tourist destination."

There is much to gain from such visibility. But it also carries risks.

Argentina's tournament in 1978 is an example. The country was ruled at the time by a sinister military junta, who, while murdering some 20,000 of its citizens also wanted to use the World Cup to make propaganda for its achievements. A U.S. PR firm was engaged to broadcast the message. But the junta found it hard to understand that the international press would not act like obedient soldiers. Some of the journalists would go looking for stories -- and an excellent one was the protest organization set up by mothers of the 'disappeared.' As a result of the World Cup, their tale was told all over the planet, bringing home to millions the true nature of the regime. There was no PR triumph, and the regime was not mourned anywhere when it collapsed five years later..

South Africa's vulnerable area is the extent to which the hopes of the anti-apartheid movement have been met -- or rather, the question of why over a decade and a half of majority rule has not brought more progress for the majority. Western Europe's project of social inclusion came at an easier time, in post-World War Two reconstruction, when industry was more labor intensive and jobs were not so hard to create. The difficulty of distributing wealth in a high tech world is surely one explanation for the crime situation which so alarms some of the European press. They will be on the look out for incidents. There is no guarantee, then, that the world will see South Africa as it would like to be seen.

But hosting the World Cup is much more than a chance to show off to others. It is also an opportunity to speak to the nation. Germany 2006 is a good example.

For obvious reasons, German nationalism was somewhat discredited in the post-war years. By 2006, though, there was sufficient distance from the events of the past for a re-branding of the concept. So much had changed. The country had been separated into east and west, but had since been reunited. And immigration had altered the look and feel of the place. The time had come when a new Germany could be celebrated , and staging the World Cup was the best possible opportunity to do it.

South Africa are aiming for a similar celebration. "Sport," said Danny Jordaan, "is the glue that binds the nation." The movie 'Invictus' has showcased Nelson Mandela's wisdom in building a bridge with South African rugby, the sport of the white minority. Soccer, though, matters much more. It was the sport of the anti-apartheid movement, it is the game of the majority. Efforts are being made to keep that majority together, and make it as inclusive as possible. There has been a movement of 'Football Fridays,' when people turn up to work in the shirt of the national soccer team, the Bafana Bafana.

Which leads to the third reason for staging the World Cup, less glamorous than international PR or nation-bonding, but more concrete -- improving the state of soccer in the host country.

An extremely successful example is USA '94. A condition of the candidacy was that a professional league would be started. It didn't happen on time, but it happened (the league debuted in 1996), and, kickstarted by the World Cup, the MLS is now a firmly established mid-ranking league.

The situation in South Africa is different. The game has deep roots, and in the immediate post-apartheid era the national team became African champions and qualified for the World Cups of 1998 and 2002. But since then, with the euphoria dissipated, the Bafana Bafana have slid right back. They did not even qualify for this year's African Cup of Nations.

Vastly experienced Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira was shocked by what he saw when he was brought in to take charge of South Africa's World Cup campaign. Little youth development work was being carried out, and methods of preparation seemed amateurish.

Regardless of how his team fares in the World Cup -- and they are in an awkward opening-round group -- this should have changed forever. Quite apart from the gleaming new stadiums built for the tournament, South African soccer should also benefit from the import of ideas -- from the introduction of Brazilian physical preparation specialists and tactical thinkers. In the mid-term South Africa should be ready to push on and become a soccer power.

If so, will the price prove to be worth paying? Almost six years ago, just after the Athens Olympics, most articles looked back favorably on the event. In 2010, with the country deep in financial crisis, the whole thing doesn't look quite so clever. Reinaldo Goncalves, a Rio-based professor of international economics, argues that the 2004 Games were a key cause of the current problems. "It was totally irresponsible of the government to invest in a specific event," said Goncalves, "without making its fragile economy more competitive."

With Brazil staging the 2014 World Cup, and Rio also hosting the 2016 Olympics, the lessons are there to be learned.

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