The 2010 World Cup in Africa: Scoring Beyond the Soccer Field

June 2, 2010

Only a tiny fraction of Africans can name the Prime Minister of Britain. It is of little consequence to them whether Labor or the Conservatives occupy 10 Downing Street. Very few citizens of Africa have any interest in the politics of the European Union or the crisis in Greece and Thailand. And likewise, only a few can name the leaders of African countries outside their immediate region. But when it comes to football (soccer), the majority of the young and middle-aged know how teams in Europe are performing; whether Manchester United won the last match against Chelsea. They generally hold strong opinions as to who should coach Inter Milan and which players should be dropped by Barcelona, or who is the best goal keeper for Real Madrid. They know the African teams, the players and their coaches and can spit out statistics with ease. They can name practically all the teams from the Latin American countries and their players. In Africa, football is not just a game, it is part of life, and an important one at that. In the last Liberian presidential elections, a candidate with no other distinction other than being a great football player came close to winning the presidency.

It is therefore of great significance to Africans that the 2010 FIFA World Cup competition will take place between June 11 and July 11 in South Africa. As this is the greatest international sporting event ever held in Africa, there is widespread excitement across the continent. Hosting the event is a big win for the continent that has, for various reasons, been excluded from consideration for such international events in the past. Although the event will be held in South Africa—to millions of Africans, Africa is the host. Africans are hopeful that one of their teams will win the Cup, but they are also realistic about facing the tough European and Latin American challengers, among others. However it is not just what happens on the soccer fields that matters—the World Cup offers an important opportunity for Africa to score on various other fronts, ones that can leave a lasting impact on the continent.

South Africa has invested heavily in infrastructure—from upgrading highways, airports, and trains; building soccer stadiums and accommodation facilities; and constructing a new rapid rail that will link stadiums. In addition, the country has invested in security and logistics so as to make sure that the event will be safe and free from adverse incidents. By all indications, South Africa will meet high international standards, which is in itself of great pride to all Africans. South Africa expects to reap various economic benefits associated with hosting the event and from the investments made. But while predictions show a boost to the economy before and after the World Cup, it is uncertain whether the event itself will generate sufficient revenue to cover the large upfront expenditures. In the longer term, however, the country can expect to see benefits in terms of accelerated economic growth. But beyond just economic growth in South Africa, the act of hosting the World Cup means much more to Africa.

Hosting a successful World Cup provides Africans the opportunity to show the world that the Africa of the 21st Century is much different from its past. It is not just about wars, famines, and diseases that Western media focus on when covering Africa. As the former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has observed, “there is tremendous pride across Africa that we are hosting this true global sporting event. Africans know that the eyes of the entire world will be on the continent…It is an opportunity to show how, out of the headlines, the continent has changed for the better.” It is true that the perceptions and image of Africa that many people have long held have not changed much. It is therefore imperative that Africans seize the opportunity afforded by hosting the World Cup to demonstrate to the world the dramatic progress that has taken place in the continent. True, Africans face many challenges, but it is also the case that these challenges are being dealt with progressively and there has been marked improvement in governance, establishment of peace, and increasingly an improved investment climate.

Probably the most important salutary benefits of hosting the World Cup will come by way of increased opportunities to raise the standard of living for the majority of the population. Africa needs greater investments to accelerate the pace of economic growth. As the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has rightfully observed “this is an African World Cup…We have an opportunity to promote foreign investment, tourism and trade.” Investment in Africa remains a tiny fraction of global foreign direct investments. The political, private sector and civil society leaders must use this opportunity to prove that the continent provides many profitable opportunities for investment and trade. With the improved policy environment, Africa is an attractive destination for foreign investments, but perceptions about the continent must be changed.

By hosting the World Cup in South Africa, all of humanity has already won. Less than two decades ago, South Africa was governed by a regime whose apartheid policies grossly violated the human rights of many, especially the majority Blacks. Nelson Mandela was in a prison not far from Cape Town, one of the World Cup host venues. And South Africa was rightfully denied the opportunity to compete in international sporting events, let alone host them. Civil society in developed nations pressured governments and the private sector to withdraw investments from South Africa and firms that were slow at disinvesting faced costly consumer boycotts. After years of struggle within, and pressure from without, change finally came in quick succession culminating in the end of the apartheid regime and the election of Mandela as president in 1994. Today, South Africa is the host of the world’s most popular sporting event and Nelson Mandela will be there, in person and in the background, a symbol of the transformation of Africa and a lasting example of the type of change that can take place in Africa when the world engages positively.