A country, and tournament, of contradictions

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:15 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG – As the world congregates at the magnificent Soccer City stadium Friday for the kickoff of the 2010 World Cup, many fans and dignitaries must navigate a street with an unflattering name to reach the glistening venue.

Introducing Rifle Range Road.

In a country attempting to escape so many dark, dingy decades of racial unrest and overwhelming crime, you would think South African officials might want to wipe out such inferences to weapons and violence, especially with the eyes of the sporting public firmly glued on it.

Wouldn’t Nelson Mandela Drive be a better handle? Or Ernie Els Boulevard? Maybe even The Charlize Theron Thruway, our personal favourite?

Not going to happen.

Not here. Not in a place that reeks of contradictions almost everywhere you look.

South Africa has built this $442 million monument to the Beautiful Game in a grimy, western corner of the city, framed by a number of abandoned gold mines which now are little more than a series of bronze hills.

Imagine what those who live in the surrounding ghettos and slums of Soweto must think. A community sprinkled with shanties and run-down houses where just getting enough to eat is a struggle at times, the poor can look through the sheets of dust blowing in the howling winds and see Soccer City standing majestically on the horizon.

Two years ago, the website “This is Africa” estimated the daily average income in Soweto at 100 South African rand – about 13 Canadian dollars. That probably wouldn’t buy you a hot dog and beer at Friday’s highly-anticipated opening match between the host South Africans – known fondly here as “Bafana Bafana” – and Mexico.

This tale of two worlds extends far beyond Soweto, too.

About a 30-minute drive from Soccer City is the upscale community of Houghton. It is here that you find gawkers parked on the street attempting to get a peek over the towering white walls at the home of Mandela, perhaps the most beloved national hero to be found here.

Nice digs.

You can’t say the same for the neighbouring community of Alexandria, which is just about four kilometres away. In the words of one fellow Canadian journalist: “It looks like an atomic bomb hit the place.”

In one neighbourhood, you have the creme de la creme. Go a few streets over and you’ll find the crumbs de la crumbs.

That’s not to say South Africans have not embraced the arrival of the World Cup. Far from it.

Everywhere you look, there are flags. And not just of the South African variety. England, Germany, Italy, Spain ... you name the country, you’ll see the flag.

At pretty much every second intersection Thursday there were entrepreneurs selling South African banners and other paraphernalia along with newspapers sporting headlines such as “Bafana mania!” Stop at a red light and you could do some quick shopping, South African-style.

Drive down the various freeways and almost every light standard sports a World Cup-related banner. And when you finally reach downtown Johannesburg, you are greeted by a 30-story image of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo adorning the side of one of the city’s sparkling skyscrapers, part of a Nike ad that will reach thousands upon thousands of eyeballs over the next month.

There certainly is no shortage of enthusiasm here.

South Africans gave the world a glimpse of what is in store over the next five weeks when they spilled into the Johannesburg streets at noon Wednesday as part of a scheduled celebration of the approaching tournament.

Blowing their vuvuzela horns until they were blue in the face, fans clogged freeway overpasses and stuffed shopping mall concourses.

Their message to the world: Let the party begin.

At the same time, the ugly underbelly of World Cup 2010 was taking place. The one known as crime.

Earlier in the week in nearby Rustenburg, three visiting journalists – two from Portugal, one from Spain – were robbed in their hotel rooms. Thursday, in the coastal town of Durban, three Greek players had a total of about $2,000 taken from their rooms.

Just another example of why this stands to be a World Cup of contradictions.

Is South Africa ready? Emotionally, yes. Structurally, no.

Less than 24 hours prior to the South Africa-Mexico game that will get the World Cup under way, workers were still fixing sidewalks and planting shrubbery outside Soccer City.

In the swank suburb of Sandton, patrons scurried to buy tickets for the Gau train, the area’s new state of the art transit system. There was just one problem. Six of the eight ticket machines had broken down, leaving lineups of dozens of people snaking through the station.

No worries, they are told by officials. Once you purchase your ticket, the trains come within every 12 minutes.

Of course, when commuters get to the platform, an electronic sign states the trains come every 15 minutes.

Yet another contradiction in a country full of them.

Interestingly, the unofficial credo in these parts for South Africa 2010 is “We’re Ready!,” a saying that is splattered on t-shirts, on banners and on billboards.

Maybe a more appropriate slogan would be: “We’re Almost Ready.”

The question is: Ready for what?

For better or worse, we are about to find out the answer.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


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