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South Africa’s World Cup failed to live up to promises

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).

On the final measure of a World Cup’s legacy, South Africa’s grade is incomplete.  South Africa only received a fraction of the tourists expected four years ago. An overvalued exchange rate, expensive flights (even though South Africa Airways is state-owned), and the global economic recession added to the general concerns over security and transportation, which depressed the numbers.

A legacy fund was created after the World Cup, so that South Africa could build broad youth development structures and possibly polish some diamonds in the rough (produce professional soccer players).  It is too early to assess its impact, but all that has been constructed so far is a series of artificial pitches dotting the South African landscape.  There are plans for provincial soccer academies to be built and to train 10,000 new coaches annually, but SAFA has been discussing the importance of the “grassroots” for years with little to show.

The “feel good” factor was fleeting as well. South Africans had reason to be proud of hosting an incident-free tournament that fans enjoyed inside and outside the country, but when the World Cup ended, South Africa focused on the never-ending political scandals involving President Jacob Zuma and the burgeoning social unrest.  Poor public services have caused hundreds of “service delivery protests” (read riots) in townships and informal settlements across the country since 2010. The nadir was on August 17, 2012, when during a wildcat strike, 34 miners were killed by state security forces near Rustenburg.

It is interesting to note that the political discourse in Brazil surrounding the hosting of the World Cup did not develop in South Africa.   The euphoria of hosting Africa’s first World Cup and a compliant media shouted down the few voices in South Africa that are being so powerfully heard today in Brazil.  The Word Cup did not change South Africa but instead reinforced all contradictions and structural problems that the country faces on the pitch and off it.


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  1. Pakapala

    June 12, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    4 years on? Isn’t it a bit early to talk about impact on the field after only 4 years.

  2. Martin J.

    June 12, 2014 at 10:47 am

    Good article. None of the stadiums built in South Africa are used for cricket or rugby which are played more frequently in South Africa at international level or for local matches. Thus the soccer stadiums sit unused for the most part.

    FIFA was intent on staging the World Cup in Africa and South Africa was by far the leading candidate because of its infrastructure, which unfortunately is getting from bad to worse at present, and no other African country could match it. Hosting the World Cup or Olympics is always about the prestige involved and the publicity generated but rarely about economics. Very few countries, if any, make a profit from hosting the games. So it will be for Brazil too.

  3. Frill Artist

    June 12, 2014 at 2:28 am

    Why does it seen like a lot of host countries for World Cups and Olympics generally get worse off after the event. Beijing, Athens, South Africa etc.

    • Jeremy

      June 12, 2014 at 3:50 am

      Many reasons why. HBO looked into this on a show a few weeks ago. The main reason is no plans in place for after the games. The up keep cost is usually to high for many places. The other reason is building arena way to big and in wrong locations.

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