Do FIFA and its international tournaments really make a difference for the countries that host them? Could they? Should they? And what responsibility must the host country take on? What if instead of leftover stadiums host nations received fully integrated, brand new transportation systems? Will that be what South Africa reaps beyond profits for those whose pockets are already full? What if they were left with a bigger and better trained security or police force?
South Africa will be the biggest, but also just the latest opportunity for FIFA to not just turn a profit but to do good by the African continent. So much has been written about the upcoming host nation and its preparedness for the World Cup. What is myth and what is truth?
Brent Latham, veteran of the last three FIFA tournaments in Africa, tries to decipher the answer.
FIFA & The Year of African Football
by Brent Latham
When the youth World Cups held in Egypt and Nigeria last year escaped serious security incidents, FIFA had to be breathing a sigh of relief. The footballing world looked like it was in the clear leading up to the World Cup in South Africa. “The Year of African Football” was safe. Sepp Blatter could smile and pat his boys on the back.
Then the FLEC started shooting things up. Actually, to be precise, they’ve been shooting things up, the world just didn’t find out about that until Emmanuel Adebayor and his Togo teammates were in their sights.
That’s the problem with Africa. There’s a lot going on here that FIFA would prefer not to know too much about. Football fans, who just want to see their teams play in the World Cup, didn’t care about any of that too much either, until now.
But the unfortunate attack on Togo’s team bus in Cabinda highlighted the potential worst-case scenario of holding the World Cup, or any international tournament, in a developing country. To be fair, to say that the attack was unlucky is more than just rhetoric: it seems the rebels had little idea who they were shooting at, confirming what most in the football world want to believe, that players and teams generally transcend ugly political barriers.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they can’t get caught in the crossfire of insecure areas. And if players can be victims, how much more so fans like those headed to South Africa in June?
“Hold on,” you say, “South Africa and Angola have little to do with each other; I’ve learned at least that much this week.”
That hasn’t stopped the discussion about the ramifications of holding international tournaments in developing countries from being rekindled. And rather than shouting down those who are voicing legitimate concerns - Phil Brown notwithstanding - as tournament organizers and other apologists seem intent on doing, perhaps it’s past time to take a measured look at the pros and cons this the “year of African football.”
I’d like to expand the focus a bit from the World Cup site itself, to include all FIFA international tournaments. The youth tournaments are an important piece of this puzzle, as they allow FIFA to bring international soccer directly to smaller markets. Plus, it’s easy for me to have an informed opinion on the issue, as the only reporter in the world (as far as I know) to have been in South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria for the three tournaments last year.
Let’s try to approach this rationally, by enumerating the difficulties of hosting tournaments in relatively impoverished countries, and embracing the true advantages of such a tack. At this point few in the international media, FIFA, the world of soccer, or in Africa itself, seem too interested in doing either. So we’ll have to begin by sorting through some myths that have been thrown into the discussion, and evaluate some hard truths as well.
Myth #1: Security fears in South Africa, and Africa in general, are overblown, and visiting teams and fans will be just fine during the World Cup.
Safety has been at the heart of the discussion leading to South Africa. Last week, a British company started selling bullet proof vests with the Union Jack emblazoned across the front, setting off the predictable knee-jerk shock reaction from the appalled organizing committee, who screamed that such protection is unwarranted. Now who do you trust, the free market, or some South African bureaucrats?
Let’s get one thing clear. Africa, in general, is not in many respects as safe as most places. Having covered the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt and the Under-17 in Nigeria, it is clear to me that such a security event, or worse, could have happened earlier this year.
Though I’m no security professional, it seemed to me that the protection surrounding the American and other teams in Egypt and Nigeria was insufficient to prevent a coordinated attack by determined groups. In Egypt, with a group of Egyptians in a car not inspected at any point, I was able to ride right up to the hotel where the teams were staying and park next to the German team bus as the players boarded it. I won’t even start to describe what could have been done in Nigeria. I’m inclined to think that amid what had to be considered lax security, groups inclined to cause trouble simply decided that youth soccer teams – from any nation - did not make a reasonable target.
So, while many were quick to dismiss the idea that an incident similar to that which befell Togo could be repeated in South Africa, where rebel groups are not a threat, it is foolish to rule out the notion that a well organized terrorist group could infiltrate the porous borders of that large nation, and attempt to set up a similar attack. I am sure those protecting the teams this summer are not overlooking that chance.
Obviously security will be much tighter in South Africa, so let’s put serious terrorist threats, which in all fairness could occur anywhere, aside. Even doing that, the security outlook for fans headed to South Africa – as it was in Nigeria – is bleak. Sure, it’s possible to stay out of trouble if you follow all the rules. Visitors will be warned not to venture out at all on their on, especially after dark, transport can be achieved only through private means, and there are few safe, open air areas to gather and do what fans most enjoy after the football – soak in the atmosphere and party. That added to hordes of drunk, celebrating football fans hardly creates a safe environment.
So as much as FIFA, the African Confederation, and South Africa would like to plaster over the deficiencies, the fact is that there are serious security risks at hand in South Africa, the most threatening of which is a severe and deadly crime situation that almost guarantees to result in lost life for fans in South Africa.
Truth: South Africa is not unique in facing crime, and proper prevention and planning would reduce risk and adequately inform travelers.
The other side of the coin: crime threats are not unique to South Africa. Brazil also experiences high rates of crime which are likely to be even worse by 2014, and if the U.S. were to be picked for 2018 or 2022, there are certainly areas of Miami or Los Angeles or Any City USA that fans won’t want to visit.
What will really make South Africa a pain for fans is the lack of transport and affordable hotels. Those factors are likely to get some fans into trouble by getting them into the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing could be less safe than driving around an unknown, dark city late at night looking for lodging (something I did in South Africa more than once during the Confederations Cup).
Such situations could be avoided by facing up to the problems and helping fans overcome the deficiencies of South Africa’s urban areas, but so far all I have seen is denial of the problems, and reports that everything is going just great. I’m not sure that’s the right course.
Far more effective would be honest, open evaluation of what problems can be expected and how to avoid trouble. The reality is that holding this or any other tournament in a developing nation means putting teams and fans at greater risk than they would be in a fully developed nation with adequate security and infrastructure, though that alone is not nearly reason enough to exclude South Africa.
Myth #2: Fans in developing countries are itching to see the games live, and will fill the stadiums to see their team play on the international stage, motivation enough to hold a World Cup in one.
I’ve heard this argument too many times here in Africa. It seems like some sort of reverse soccer discrimination policy. It goes like this: Africans love the game; they crave it; they somehow deserve it more than other continents that don’t share their passion.
But then, why are the stadiums empty?
During the course of last year’s tournaments, there were some full houses – often when the home team or Brazil was playing. But most of the stadiums were not full for most matches, and the Egyptian tournament was a clear disappointment in terms of fan interest locally - almost no one came to the games not involving Egypt or Brazil. In Nigeria, some of the stadiums filled for some of the games; others were mostly empty. All you have to do is tune in to any game of the Africa Nations Cup not involving Angola to see how much Angolans care about international soccer.
South Africa is a peculiar case as well, which will make for an interesting story this year. The Confederations Cup games were not all sell outs, and the World Cup is likely to see many fans disguised as empty seats. South Africans, perhaps rationally so, are more interested in seeing international teams like Brazil and England than their own Bafana Bafana, as ticket sales thus far bear out. And South Africans are fair weather fans of unusual transience - the average South African fan will get behind the Brazilians or Italians just as quickly as he will support the home side (which may be a blessing when South Africa exits in the first round in June).
But South Africa is a unique country with a special history, as we all know, so I won’t go further into analyzing the complexities of the South African psyche except to say that while the South Africans are as eager as anyone to see a World Cup live, that ambition is not based on long-held hopes for the home team, or a craze to see any match at all, as it would be in many other countries globally.
Truth: Fans in developing countries love football, but not more than you do.
Fans in developing nations have a right to see tournaments live. But they are not more interested or dedicated fans than any other group in any country around the world.
Satellite and cable TV also brings international football to all corners of the planet, so fans in many countries around the world are not interested in the chance to see live football not involving teams they already know and follow. A match between Algeria and Slovenia would fill a 60,000 seat stadium in few places in the world, no more so in South Africa. So the argument that the developing country football fan needs an international tournament to support the international game, or because he is somehow a more dedicated fan, doesn’t hold water.
Furthermore, there are countless factions in developing countries who would prefer not to hold any such event. Many in South Africa are incensed that billions have been spent on the tournament when so many other pressing social and economic issues face the country. Without passing judgment on those points of view, those who are detractors for such reason definitely deserve consideration.
Myth #3: Countries awarded FIFA tournaments are also given the guidance to run them properly, so it doesn’t matter which country is picked among the bunch.
While the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt benefited from excellent organization in a very safe country, the Under-17 in Nigeria was in many ways a travesty. The organization was disastrous, and transport proved daunting, unsafe, and excessive in such a large country. International fans and media stayed away almost entirely, for obvious reasons.
At the end of the unnecessary television ads welcoming the non-existent fans from foreign lands to Nigeria ran the slogan “Nigeria, great people, credible country,” which pretty much summed up the problem with the event. The Nigerians seemed to think smiling and welcoming people made all their blunders all right, but the problem is that those who have work to do need things to work properly, and nothing did.
All this occurred under the supervision of FIFA, which looked on like an annoyed stepfather as the Nigerians made a mockery just about everything having to do with organization. This is not to single out Nigeria: certainly some in the country could have done a good job, but the organization and leadership selected could not, and did not seem too interested at any rate.
International tournaments, once awarded, are left to the devices of the local organizing committee. FIFA steps back and supervises, but does little to improve things once the ball is in motion. In the case of Nigeria, FIFA looked on ruefully but without acting.
Truth: Those developing countries willing and able to properly organize tournaments can do a great job, and should get a chance, but some effort must be made to distinguish.
The moral of the story: to host an international tournament, countries must not only say they are credible and competent, but be so. Organizing a soccer tournament is not rocket science; all countries are capable of doing it properly. The x-factor is will power and leadership, and it has to come from within. The developing world needs a paternalistic attitude like Haiti needed an earthquake. There are countries on every continent, and factions within them, perfectly capable of putting on any size tournament. The Egyptians demonstrated that much, and the South Africans seem to be doing a more than passable job on the parts of the organization that they can control.
When the proper infrastructure exists – and all you need for an Under-17 or Under-20 stadium is four or five stadiums and roads connecting them – any country can potentially host such an event. But it takes more than just the stadiums. A country must have the organizational capacity and willingness to set things up correctly. When a tournament is thrust upon a country as U-17 was upon Nigeria, which tried to back out for lack of resources on two occasions, a dynamic for problems is created.
Of course there are many more facets of the larger argument that could be explored, but I have tried to touch on some of the more relevant. It should be obvious that there are convincing arguments for and against staging FIFA tournaments in developing nations. If you take away anything from this read, I hope it’s that when it comes to soccer, developing countries with the infrastructure to host a tournament are similar to developed countries in more ways than they are different, and their organization should be expected to be as well.
Success and Disaster
I’ll let you make up your mind, but here’s my ultimate point of view: though there are clear trade-offs in terms of fan enjoyment, accessibility, and safety, FIFA tournaments should be spread around under certain conditions. More than bringing the chance to see a game live, hosting a tournament brings a sense of participation and ownership of the game to countries that deserve it.
But the qualifications to host a tournament should not be purely political or economic, or even based entirely on country-wide safety or infrastructure. Developing countries can and should be given the chance to organize tournaments regularly, but under the same circumstances, conditions, and expectations as any other FIFA member. Developing country or not, all nations are equal associates of FIFA, of which equal should be expected.
So, aside from existing, adequate stadiums, and transport for fans and teams within the tournament area, all countries should be made to demonstrate that they have a group willing and able to organize properly the necessary requisites for teams, fans, and media. With that, the tournament will be a success. Without, it will be a disaster for everyone.
While Egypt easily met all the criteria I mention, Nigeria never did, and should have been replaced. Nor, does it seem, that Angola will live up to such a standard, not because they are not capable of hosting a tournament – I can’t say since I’m not there - but because parts of the planned agenda were not elaborated clearly enough to guarantee the safety of the participants. Let’s hope with this lesson, South Africa 2010 will pass on all counts.
It bears repeating here that soccer is the world’s game. The promises of more profits, better fields, or stadiums with more amenities in developed countries don’t make for a better World Cup for players or the billions of fans watching on television. Those things make only for stronger profits for FIFA, the sponsors, and others with economic interests in the game, but – as FIFA seems to be saying this time around – who cares?
Soccer is played on dirt fields and strips of land worldwide. Many of the international superstars who make the game great have grown up in such environments. While the rhetoric for and against holding the World Cup in South Africa will continue long past the tournament’s end, the reality, like most things in life, is that there are advantages and disadvantages to holding the full World Cup, or indeed any FIFA tournament, in developing nations.
Certainly there will be inconveniences to teams, fans, and media headed to South Africa, but there will also be huge boosts for the continent and country, and perhaps the game of soccer. It’s a delicate balance.
South Africa seems like they’re on the path to getting it right. The best way to fail, however, will be to continue to pretend that the country, or the continent, is a whole range of things that it is not, rather than embracing the reality of a quickly developing nation that is as beautiful as it is different.