Africa’s field of dreams

EVERY nation has defining moments in history – turning points that act as catalysts for change, create opportunities to prosper, and offer hope to its people.

The year 1994 was such a year for South Africa, when it held its first democratic elections, putting the African National Congress Party in power with Nelson Mandela as its president, and freeing the nation of its apartheid chains.

For South Africa, 2010 may be another spike on its graph of history. In less than 100 days, South Africa will play host to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

And last Wednesday night for the Socceroos v Indonesia Asian Cup Qualifier in Brisbane, South African Tourism hosted a private function for selected VIPs, journalists and travel industry representatives in a corporate suite at Suncorp Stadium to start the ball rolling.

As the Australian 1-0 victory played out over 90 minutes at “the Cauldron”, with 20,000 mostly green-and-gold supporters, those gathered couldn’t help but be caught up in the buzz and anticipation of the upcoming festival of football – the biggest sporting event after the Olympics and the one with the greatest worldwide television audience.

Since 1994, South Africa has successfully held many major international sporting events, including the 2003 World Cricket Cup and the 1995 Rugby World Cup (magnificently played out in the current big-screen film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon as South African Rugby captain Francois Pienaar).

But for four weeks this June and July, South Africa will be the centre of the universe. The world’s eyes will be on the southern tip of Africa with an estimated three million international visitors and a television audience of billions.

FIFA obviously has faith in the country’s renowned hospitality and passion for “the beautiful game”. And South Africa has risen to the task, buoyed by a Field Of Dreams philosophy: “If you build it, they will come.”

Since the 2010 host nation was announced on May 15, 2004 – the first time the World Cup had gone to an African nation, the South African Government has spent billions of rand on building and renovating 10 stadiums, as well as many more billions of rand on upgrades to airports, roads and the rail network.

New stadiums have been built at Mbombela in Mpumalanga and Nelson Mandela Metro in the Eastern Cape. Major renovations have taken place at Soccer City and Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, the Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg in North West Province, and Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein in the Free State. Peter Mokaba stadium in Polokwane in Limpopo, Kings Park stadium in Durban, and Cape Town’s Green Point stadium with its retractable dome roof were all rebuilt.

So while those huge injections to infrastructure and sporting facilities have translated into hundreds of thousands of jobs and welcome benefits to the South African economy during the Global Financial Crisis, government officials and tourism leaders know the indirect spinoffs of increased visitor numbers, long after the World Cup has ended, could have an even greater impact on the nation.

This is an opportunity for the country to hold a mirror to itself and show the world the reflection of the new South Africa.

At the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Switzerland in January this year, South African President Jacob Zuma said his country was open for business and ready for football fans from around the globe.

Mr Zuma has described the 2010 World Cup as South Africa’s “greatest marketing opportunity of our time” and a chance for the world to see and experience Africa in a different way – “an opportunity to tackle stereotypes and preconceptions about the continent, and explore new frontiers of interaction and cooperation”.

South African Tourism General Manager Australasia Bangu Masisi summed up the wave of euphoria sweeping South Africa as the World Cup draws closer.

“We want to tell the world how excited we are,” she said. “It really is a very big deal for us.”

Ms Masisi, who is based in Sydney and was cheering for the Socceroos, said the huge improvements to sports facilities for the World Cup would please overseas guests and be a lasting legacy for generations of South African footballers and fans.

South Africa surely will look back on 2010 as the year football changed the course of history.

‘We want to tell the world how excited we are.’

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