Four years ago, South Africa was on the eve of hosting the continent’s first FIFA World Cup. Questions abounded about South Africa’s preparation: would the stadiums be ready? Would crime abate as to allow everyone to focus on the football? Would the logistics be tolerable? The answers to all the questions above were yes, more or less. On the longer-term metrics on how to judge a World Cup—the value of the financial investment, the effect on the domestic game, and the possible spillover effects on tourism, national prestige and social cohesion—the World Cup was a missed opportunity.
South Africa spent $3 billion on World Cup infrastructure, two-thirds of it was used to build or renovate the ten stadiums for the World Cup. Six of them (Soccer City [Soweto, just south of Johannesburg], Polokane, Nelspruit, Cape Town, Durban, and Port Elizabeth) were built from scratch. Among them, only two, Soccer City (renamed as FNB Stadium) and Port Elizabeth¸ have any promise of financial sustainability. The other four venues are white elephants. In terms of related infrastructure, South Africa did upgrade airports, highways and some railways. Public transportation remains very limited, and crime continues to be a specter over every facet of daily life.
The South African game is arguably in a weaker position than before 2010. Within a year of the World Cup, the South African Football Association, SAFA, hired Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Brazilian coach who won the World Cup in 1994. He was bought in to repeat what Guus Hiddink achieved in South Korea in 2002. Parreira saw in Bafana Bafana, the Zulu nickname for the men’s national team (the repeated word is a sign of affection towards the team), a squad with a high work rate but average skill and little European club experience. He demanded the domestic season end in March to train the national side for three months before the tournament and tried to transform Bafana Bafana into a defensive, counterattacking team.
Unfortunately, few South African players had played in such a system. South Africa was fortunate to draw with Mexico, awful against Uruguay (losing 3-0) and very lucky to play an imploding France, which resulted in South Africa’s only win in the group stage. Bafana Bafana were the first host nation not to qualify for the second round of the World Cup due to an inferior goal difference to Mexico. Since 2012, South Africa hired two domestically-based coaches, and the rot has persisted. Bafana Bafana failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations 2012 and the World Cup 2014. (South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations 2013 and lost to Mali on penalties in quarterfinals.) South Africa suffers from no discernible style of play, a general reluctance to play young players, weak or non-existent development structures, and fan-and media-favorite players always being selected to the starting XI.
The domestic club game might be in worse shape than Bafana Bafana. In the first division (PSL) of 16 clubs, only three of them consistently draw attendances over 5,000 fans—Mamelodi Sundowns, Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. The PSL privileges cup competitions over the regular season, so league matches are played in the middle of the week. The patchy transportation system makes it very difficult to attend matches at any time. Soccer matches also have a reputation in the country, which might be unfair, that they are not family-friendly spaces. The local game compares poorly with top European club soccer, which bombards South African satellite television subscribers by every week. The PSL’s play is generally dour (the PSL’s leading goal scorer, last season Bernard Parker, had ten goals in 30 games).