By Katie Witham
For the billions of soccer fans around the world, the past four years have been spent in eager anticipation of the 2010 World Cup.
This summer’s World Cup will be held in Africa for the first time ever, a move that is historically groundbreaking and possesses the potential to be hugely influential.
When South Africa hosts the competition this summer, it will mark the first time the Cup has been played on the African continent. The World Cup has been held on every other continent except Australia, and multiple times on most.
South Africa will join Cameroon, Algeria, and the Ivory Coast in representing Africa in this summer’s tournament.
Despite never having won a World Cup, African teams have certainly been prominent enough to earn a position as hosts long before now.
The importance of this long overdue honor to South Africa and to the continent as a whole is immense.
Tumi Magadlela, a native of South Africa and a player on Palm Beach Atlantic University’s soccer team, sees the World Cup as an opportunity for unification and hope throughout Africa.
“For many South Africans, and Africans in general, hosting the World Cup is a symbol of hope for a nation and a continent buzzing with potential,” Magadlela said. “It is honestly the best thing after the country’s struggle for independence and the demolition of apartheid. To the people, it is a sign of drastic change for the better.”
Arno VanVuuren, another PBA student from South Africa, agreed that the effect on the country would be positive.
“The World Cup will be a huge step in uniting the country,” VanVuuren said. “Much of the political inconsistency in South Africa has left the nation with mixed feelings, but the World Cup is something that everyone can agree on, no matter what their tribal background, age or profession.”
While most acknowledge the competition’s potential for bringing the continent together, many in FIFA’s governing body are skeptical of South Africa’s preparedness to host. There is also worry that the country will not be ready in time, a fear that increases as the Cup approaches.
There is also worry that pouring billions into the requisite new stadiums will prove too financially draining, even with the certainty of an international tourism boost from the tournament.
In recent months, fear over teams’ and fans’ safety has mounted. In January an Angolan guerilla attack on a bus carrying the Togo national team left three dead and seven injured. Granted, South Africa is a far more stable and developed nation, but such violence does add to the pressure on the country to meet expectations.
“I have seen the work that has been put into the tournament — from new roads to new stadiums — and I disagree with the assumption that it will not be ready in time,” Magadlela said. “The only issue that may be of concern is the crime rate the country faces.”
African involvement in the World Cup began with only the second competition, when Egypt played in 1934.
But for decades after that, FIFA refused to arrange qualifying rounds for African teams.
It was 1970 before an African team was allowed to return, with Morocco winning the only spot allowed for the entire continent.
In 1974, Zaire became the first black African team to play. That World Cup was marred by instances of horrifying racism, a sad reality for black players in Europe for many decades.
Modern technology then allowed the sport to become global, as African teams were able to watch other teams from around the world and train accordingly. This brought African soccer from the realm of raw talent to the status of true competitors.
In 1994 Cameroon made it to the World Cup quarterfinals, led by the 44-year-old superstar Roger Milla, and Africa was accepted as contenders in the modern game.
The question then arises as to why an African team has not progressed any farther since 1994. What of Pele’s prediction that an African team would win the entire World Cup before 2000?
The globalization of club teams has helped create an environment in which African players can thrive.
Some of Europe’s biggest and most expensive stars — Drogba, E’eto, Adebeyor — are African. Additionally, African teams regularly do well in Youth World Cup competitions.
To Magadlela, the lack of World Cup success for African teams lies in their underdeveloped economy and the corrupt government involvement that occurs within many teams.
“Africa has nothing to blame but its economy,” Magadlela said. “Training facilities and development structures make a good team a better team. Africa has this constant battle with what happens with the money they receive for issues such as sports. Corruption tends to deprive many young athletes.”
The opportunity to host a World Cup is huge for the success of African teams.
Fan support will be astronomically high; often adrenaline alone can propel a team farther than they could possibly have gone otherwise. Home teams historically do well, and only one team has ever won the competition when playing on another continent.
But the pressure from African fans eager for long awaited success added to the pressure of outside forces to have a smooth competition could also be too much.
Just as a successful World Cup could impact Africa in extremely positive ways, any potential disasters — a bad showing by all African teams, lack of organization or unfinished stadiums, or excessive crime problems — could be equally devastating.
There is an unjust sentiment within FIFA that this World Cup is a sort of condescending favor bestowed by Europe and the hierarchal powers of soccer.
This attitude is both unfair and ridiculous.
Africa has performed at a higher standard and for a longer period of time than either Asia or North America, both of whom have hosted the competition without a parade of doubters.
Hosting the World Cup, a competition that should be global and inclusive by its very definition, is not merely a gift or reward to Africa, but an overdue acknowledgment of equality.
Will an African team win the World Cup this summer? It is certainly possible, but ultimately unlikely.
A more important and lasting victory will come in destroying old perceptions of the continent in removing still existing prejudice.
The influence of the competition will be more about unification and hope than about victory on the field.