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September 2009

Perceptions

16 Sep 2009(Wed)

Five more countries – Brazil, Ghana, England, Spain, and Paraguay – have secured their places at the 2010 World Cup since my interview last month with Marc Fletcher, a British researcher who had just returned from 19 months in Johannesburg investigating all things football. As the list of qualified teams grows longer, global focus on the security and infrastructure issues facing South Africa ahead of the Finals is likely only to grow more intense, but as Marc was at pains to point out, overcoming the world’s preconceptions of their country and continent may yet prove the toughest hurdle for both the organisers and the South African people.

 

After the interview had finished, Marc and I went off on a long tangent to discuss our own experiences as Englishmen overseas. Becoming integrated within a different society provides wonderful insight into both positive and negative elements of your two countries’ true colours, and even after five and a half years in Osaka, this never quite manages to disappear. Just last Friday, a Dutch friend and I were refused entry to a bar that clearly wasn’t as full as the owner tried to claim, but 24 hours later, I enjoyed the Kansai derby in the company of Gamba fans whose warmth and welcoming nature had fostered my love of their team and city in the first place. I still find myself forced to correct certain misconceptions about the UK, but at the same time, last night I was irritated by a horribly antiquated and ignorant impression of a Japanese accent that somehow found its way onto a BBC radio podcast.

 

Sadly, the case of Caster Semenya that Marc cited as an example of these ‘perceptions’ has been in the news again over the last week, with many media sources suggesting tests have shown the 800m athlete to have an intersex status. Personally, I haven’t seen a great deal untoward amongst the international press coverage itself, and would suggest that the only real culprit in the whole affair is the IAAF for its insensitivity in somehow allowing the story – both on the day of the Berlin final and during the subsequent testing – to become public knowledge in the first place. As such, allegations over engrained racism in this instance at least are surely wide of the mark. The athletics governing body would have been no less incompetent even if Semenya were neither black nor South African.

 

Still, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. The world’s press may have a duty to inform readers of potential risks, but South Africa has every right to be irritated by the negative tone that much of the World Cup coverage has taken from the very beginning. This sense that onlookers are just waiting for the first big failure harks back to a similarly negative build up to last year’s Beijing Olympics (not least in Japan, even if memories were still fresh of the disgraceful anti-Japanese sentiment that tarnished China’s hosting of the AFC Asian Cup in 2004), whose tale still ended happily once left to its own devices. In a globalising world, we should instead be happy that sport gives us the opportunity to sample new horizons, be it South Africa next year, Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012, or even Brazil in 2014.

 

As Marc said back in Part 1 of the interview, it’s really just a matter of being sensible. South Africa may yet have issues to solve and might not be as ridiculously safe and organised as were Japan and South Korea in 2002 – few places are – but it is hardly an uninhabitable warzone either. Each year, around ten million tourists visit a country that has already hosted World Cups in both rugby union and cricket, while the Indian Premier League was successfully relocated to South Africa at short notice back in spring due, ironically, to its superior ability to guarantee adequate security at that time. Indeed, enhanced police presence and additional countermeasures will surely make next summer a safer time to visit the country than ever, and even if one or two precautions might be necessary, that’s never stopped anyone from holidaying overseas before.

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[Interview] Nine months to South Africa 2010 – Part 3: Mood

7 Sep 2009(Mon)

In the final part of our interview, I discussed the mood in South Africa leading up to next year’s World Cup with Marc Fletcher, a British doctorate researcher at Edinburgh University who recently spent 19 months investigating the football scene in Johannesburg.

 

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

 

I suppose the various debates won’t disappear until we see what actually happens and South Africa has had the chance to prove itself, but what’s the mood of the average local football supporter and indeed the average man, woman, and child in the street? Have other people’s concerns got to them, or are they just looking forward to putting on a party for the world to enjoy?

 

It depends what time of day you speak to them! It really does. Just after the Confederations Cup had finished, a lot of people I spoke to at the grounds and in both the townships and the wealthy northern suburbs of Jo’burg were pleased with how it had gone. There were no major incidents, it went quite well, FIFA gave the thumbs up, Bafana Bafana surprised us all and came fourth. So in that respect, euphoria is too strong a word, but people were pleased. But then, at other times, I’ve been speaking to people who think that South African football is so corrupt and so poorly run that it’s just going to be the same again on a world scale and we’re going to embarrass ourselves.

 

When I first started my research, I thought these viewpoints would be highly racialised, with white South Africans saying ‘the World Cup’s going to be a disaster’ and black South Africans saying ‘no, it’s going to be great, we’re going to show the world what South Africa is like’. But then, one time when I was at Kaizer Chiefs versus SuperSport United in Pretoria, there was a bit of an altercation and the (black) people I was with started accusing the metro cops of being racist because we were in Pretoria – the Afrikaner ‘heartland’. Speaking to these guys after that, they were all really pessimistic about the World Cup and how they were going to be embarrassed. And yet, speaking to some white South Africans at the Confederations Cup, they were really impressed with Bafana’s performances and how it had gone. So a lot of people are confused, they don’t know what to think. A lot of people hope that it’s going to be a success, and they can see that it could be a success.

 

But many others are fed up with Western perceptions of their country and of themselves. I digress, but take the issue of Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old 800m world champion. You read the papers in the UK, and it’s all ‘is she a man, is she a woman, we don’t know! She’s from this dodgy part of South Africa...’. And then you read the South African papers, and it’s an affront to all South Africans that we’re even questioning the gender of this woman. It’s Western neo-imperialism coming through again and sometimes, as a Brit who was in South Africa for some time, I was ashamed by some of the writing and some of the journalism.

 

Finally – are you personally looking forward to it?

 

Oh yes. It’s going to be amazing. I’ve already started to see Johannesburg transform – in some required areas – and things are happening. I want to see the culmination of all these efforts. It’s going to be a World Cup, I think, unlike any other.

 

But when they say it’s going to be an African World Cup, there are going to be elements which are distinctly South African and some that are distinctly African. Take the vuvuzela for example – that’s another interview for itself. But the only thing that I’m really unhappy about is that while FIFA, the government, and the local organising committee have marketed this tournament as a tournament for all Africans – all South Africans and all Africans – the vast majority of spectators will be Western Europeans. It will be the rich, it will be the First World.

 

And the guests of FIFA...

 

Exactly. In FIFA’s defence – and I don’t like to defend FIFA – they have released a certain amount of tickets for each game at vastly reduced prices for South African citizens only. So the poorer people have a chance of actually getting in the grounds and being a part of this. However, from experience, I know full well that that the people who have taken advantage of these cheap tickets are those South Africans who are a lot wealthier than you or I. But, you know, hopefully it will be great.

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[Interview] Nine months to South Africa 2010 – Part 2: Organisation

1 Sep 2009(Tue)

In part two of my interview with Marc Fletcher, a British doctorate researcher at Edinburgh University who recently spent 19 months investigating the football scene in Johannesburg, we discussed the organisational issues facing the World Cup in South Africa next year.

 

Click here for Part 1

 

The Confederations Cup itself was a qualified success, but the logistics, facilities, and the actual stadia involved were just a fraction of what’s going to be required next year. You’ve been around watching not only the Confederations Cup but also plenty of domestic football in South Africa – quite simply, is the country going to be ready in time?

 

Yes. Now, I say that most definitely because the stadia construction looks like it’s all on time. Some of it is ahead of schedule. Soccer City looks absolutely amazing, while a few of the training grounds including Orlando Stadium in Jo’burg are world class, amazing facilities. During the Confederations Cup, especially in Jo’burg again, the opening game was a bit of a disaster in terms of actually transporting all the fans from the Park and Ride car parks to the stadium and then back again. They didn’t know what they were doing, it was poorly organised, and it was a bit of a crush. It wasn’t an organised chaos; it was chaos. However, by the time it got to the final, it had improved a lot. I went to about four or five Ellis Park matches, and every time you could see that something improved, something got better. They increased police presence; they put in more barriers and signs to guide people to the right areas. You could see them learning every day. So, for all of the cities of the Confederations Cup, they will be ready. I seriously believe they will be ready.

 

But there are still a number of other stadiums as well, plus the matter of transport to these places that are yet to be used.

 

Well, this is one of the problems. In Polokwane and Nelspruit for example, they’re not going to have any kind of decent dry runs like Jo’burg, Bloemfontein, Pretoria, and Rustenberg have had. Polokwane recently had Manchester City versus Orlando Pirates, but there were only 30,000 Pirates fans, and that’s nothing like having to deal with thousands of World Cup tourists every day.

 

That’s what I mean – it is sometimes hard for the rest of the world to see that South Africa is going to be ready when there are issues like that still to be dealt with, with no more opportunities for a dry run as you say.

 

Yes, but at the same time, this isn’t a South African problem. It’s a problem that will occur in any country that hosts such a mega sporting event as the World Cup. I’m sure come the 2012 Olympics in England there are going to be some complete cock-ups! There are a lot of issues that have to be ironed out and there will be problems during the tournament. If we go back to the Western media perceptions of South Africa, all day it’s Africa, pessimistic! It reeks of neo-colonialism. ‘You’re African, we’re Western. We know what we’re on about, we know what we’re doing, you can’t host such a tournament’. And they’re always looking for such excuses. Take the Guardian newspaper for example. I have been very disappointed with the coverage by their sports writers.

 

There was a slightly notorious article written by Louise Taylor that was rather condescending.

 

Most of the blogs and the thought pieces in the Guardian have been a) condescending, b) poorly thought through, and c) not even researched, because they’ve not actually been to South Africa. I think for a paper of that stature, if they’re doing that, then South Africa has a massive task on its hands to change Western perceptions of South Africa and Africa as a whole.

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