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.