Can we be sure of South Africa?

South Africa unveiled “Zakumi,” a cuddly leopard, as its mascot for the 2010 World Cup last month and with regional qualification for the tournament underway, the sporting world has shifted its gaze from the Olympic Games to the world’s next great sporting event.

There is collective agreement that the Chinese staged an event of epic proportions in Beijing. State of the art stadia, well run transportation links, excellent communication facilities and strong political support facilitated the smooth running of the Games.

Will South Africa be able to do the same? Not only is the nation’s pride and prestige invested in running an excellent World Cup but that of Africa as well (Africa was chosen as the host for the 2010 World Cup as part of a new policy to rotate the event between football confederations, this policy was later abandoned in October 2007). Whilst it would be unfair to ask South Africa to reach the impossibly high standards that were set in China, it is fair to begin asking whether it will be able to match the benchmark set in Germany, host of the previous World Cup.

Unfortunately, rather than resembling Germanic efficiency, the preparations merit closer comparison with Greece’s desperate dash to ready Athens for the 2004 Olympics. Like Athens the construction and refurbishment of stadia, transport links and accommodation are beset by labour disputes. The problems can acutely be seen in the country’s preparation for the Confederations Cup which will be held next year as a dress rehearsal for 2010.

FIFA’s decision to drop Port Elizabeth as a venue for the Confederations Cup has caused great alarm. All other stadia required refurbishment but Port Elizabeth was the only one undergoing a complete reconstruction. FIFA stated that it believed that the stadium would be ready in time for 2010. Nevertheless, what is worrying is that two deadlines have already been missed for its completion.

If South Africa can’t organise efficiently a preparatory tournament, how will it ready itself for the real thing? The Olympics may try and claim the title of the world’s premier sporting event but in truth it is not – this accolade belongs to the World Cup. The Olympics can not compete in terms of viewing figures, passion and column inches. The world demands that its greatest event is held in a country which can competently accommodate it.

South Africa’s transport problems will not be resolved. The planned upgrades to the transportation system have only just begun and officials have admitted that the Gautrain, an ambitious rail project aimed at easing traffic congestion in the Johannesburg-Pretoria area, will only be partly completed by 2010 and will not provide access to any of the stadia. Coupled with an estimated shortage of accommodation (as high as 120,000 units), a Herculean effort is needed to ready the country for the tournament.

South Africa’s World Cup Committee has already conceded that the cost of hosting the World Cup will be double its initial estimate and with the credit crunch beginning to bite around the globe there will be only be a greater focus on its financing. People are asking whether it is fair that in a post-apartheid country, where many live in abject poverty without basic medical services, electricity and running water the state should be spending vast amounts of money on an event for foreigners when economic conditions are worsening day by day, hour by hour.

As the Greek government illustrated only strong political will can ensure that delays are overcome but it seems that the political turmoil in South Africa may result in the World Cup becoming an afterthought in the minds of the political elite. Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s beleaguered President, agreed to stand down last month following a putsch by the leaders of the ruling African National Congress.

A ruling President has never been removed in post-apartheid South Africa and the constitution is silent on a presidential resignation or removal. Political wrangling means that the race to succeed Mbeki will be both fierce and divisive. The worry is that by the time the nation’s politics is resolved it will be too late to rescue the World Cup.

Sepp Blatter staked his reputation in bringing the World Cup to South Africa but has remarked that contingency plans are in place with Spain, England, Australia, Mexico and America being able to host the event should a catastrophe occur.

All football fans must hope that this is not the case. One of the greatest sporting moments of recent times was seeing Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey handing the Rugby World Cup to Francois Pienaar wearing a Springbok jersey. It symbolised the moment where the Afrikaner game was embraced by the majority black population. The World Cup will provide the minority white population with an opportunity to play a part in what is considered the game of the shanty towns and bask in the reflected glow of hosting a successful World Cup. But for this to happen South Africa must get its house in order quickly, before it is too late.