World Cup 2010: The man behind the regeneration of South Africa's infrastructure – and its reputation

Danny Jordaan always believed his country could host the World Cup – he just had to persuade the naysayers, abroad and at home
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Danny Jordaan is tired. It's six o'clock in the evening, the end of a full day of meetings, and a day that started yesterday on another continent. The man responsible for organising the World Cup arrived back in Johannesburg this morning after an overnight flight from New York – through seven time zones – and he still hasn't been home.

He greets the arrival of a journalist in his wood-panelled office on the third floor of an old apartheid-era ministry building with a barely suppressed sigh, which is unusual for Jordaan. The face of South Africa's World Cup is an accomplished media performer; the previous times we have met he has been polite, engaging and forthright. Not today; not at first, anyway. His eyes, drooping, glance down at his desk, where sheets of accounts are placed under his nose. As Jordaan scrawls his initials on each, barely looking at the pieces of paper he is signing, he speaks in a low voice, listing off a series of committees he has sat on, positions he has held.

I had asked him about his background. How did a former schoolteacher end up organising the biggest event in the world? I was hoping for anecdotes of fighting apartheid. Instead, I am informed in monotone that he chaired the South African Black Intervarsity Council at university.

He is going through the motions and, frustrating as it is, I can't blame him. In recent months he has done dozens of brief interviews, most of which revolve around journalistic scepticism that South Africa is capable of hosting the World Cup.

It is only when the conversation turns to cricket, which Jordaan played when he was younger, that he stops scribbling his signature and looks up with a smile. He was an all-rounder – left-handed middle-order batsman and left-arm swing bowler. "I used to move the ball a lot," he grins.

He pushes the accounts, all signed, to one side, pours a can of ginger beer and sits back in his chair, reminiscing about playing football and cricket in the Eastern Cape where he was brought up in the 1950s and 1960s. In normal circumstances, Jordaan, one of seven brothers, would have harboured ambitions to play for his country. But there were no normal circumstances in South Africa under apartheid.

"We didn't spend too much time thinking about representing the country, because we could never represent a country that treated us as foreigners and denied us fundamental and basic rights," he says. "The struggle for equal worth as human beings in our country was uppermost."

Sport played a crucial role in that struggle. The anti-apartheid movement targeted it as a way of publicly criticising the South African government. Black and mixed-race sportsmen and women across the country called for the ' rest of the world to boycott South Africa teams; the policy of "isolation" led to South Africa being banned from competing in international rugby and cricket, and the Olympics.

The Confederation of African Football had already banned the country's football team from taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations, which had begun in 1957. But Fifa, the world governing body, appeared less principled. It was not until the 1966 World Cup, held in England, that Fifa insisted South Africa's national team should be multiracial. South Africa suggested a compromise: a white-only team would compete in the tournament in England, while a non-white team would represent the country at Mexico in 1970. Fifa refused and the country was banned from playing international football.

This global sporting boycott was a constant reminder of what the rest of the world thought of apartheid. But perhaps more importantly, sport – particularly football – helped to cement opposition to the regime within the country. "Everything was banned: political organisations, civic organisations, youth organisations," says Jordaan. "The only thing which wasn't banned was sport." Football matches were one of the few places where black people were allowed to gather in large numbers. And political activists were able to campaign at stadiums under the cover of a football match. "We used to talk in the dressing-rooms, too. It gave us a good opportunity."

The prominent use of sport in the struggle for liberation puts this World Cup in context: for Jordaan, the tournament is the first in a generation where the politics off the field is perhaps more important than what happens on it.

Jordaan was elected as a member of parliament in 1994 but he was a reluctant politician. He had been offered a place at university in the United States, but leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) blocked his move, insisting that he run for office instead. "It was quite remarkable to walk into that parliament, where they made all the apartheid rules, and to have the opportunity to create a new constitution, new legislation that would lay the foundations for a new South Africa." It didn't take long before he was arguing that sport, which had done so much to bring down apartheid, could also play a key role in creating the new South Africa.

It was at the 1994 World Cup in the United States that the idea was first mooted of a South African bid. Fifa was open to the idea, in particular the organisation's new president, Sepp Blatter. Jordaan was tasked with putting together a bid for the 2006 tournament and Blatter publicly backed it, saying the time for Africa to host the World Cup had finally arrived.

Africa's relationship with the World Cup had been fraught. Although Egypt was invited to take part in the second tournament, in Italy in 1934, it was not until 1970 that another African representative (Morocco) was allowed to play. By 1994, Africa had been granted three places (out of a total of 24), but there appeared to be little appetite among the big countries to allow an African nation to host the tournament.

A year later, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup, which many commentators claimed showed the true birth of the Rainbow Nation. Nelson Mandela wore the once-hated Springbok jersey while a stadium full of white South Africans chanted "Nelson! Nelson!" as he handed the trophy to South Africa's winning captain, François Pienaar. Jordaan hoped that a football World Cup would be a similarly unifying event.

The other bidders for 2010 included Brazil, Germany and England – countries that had all hosted the tournament before. England's bid was a car crash. Under the terms of a gentlemen's agreement, Germany had withdrawn its bid to host the 1996 European Championships in favour of England, while in return Germany would be Europe's sole submission for the 2006 World Cup. But England, at the height of Cool Britannia, reneged on the deal. It won them few friends and it soon became clear that the two most impressive bids were from Germany and South Africa.

Mandela was wheeled out to hawk for votes from the 24 Fifa executive committee members who would decide where the tournament would be held. If the committee was tied, Blatter would have the casting vote – and he was reiterating his support for South Africa.

It should have been tied. Germany won 12 and South Africa looked like it had won 12, too – but then Charles Dempsey, a 78-year-old New Zealander representing Oceania, disappeared. For reasons that remain unclear, he decided not to vote and flew home. Germany won by a single vote.

Jordaan did not dwell on what happened. The next day, he announced that South Africa would bid again. Four years on, it was successful. That's when the hard work began. Building or upgrading 10 stadia and several airports, constructing road and rail links, improving mobile and web connections — South Africa has had more work to do to prepare for a World Cup than any other host nation in a while.

South Africa has also faced far more criticism than any other host nation. Every major tournament is beset by criticism before the start. The 2000 Sydney Olympics, now remembered as the best ever, were widely condemned in the months and years leading up to the opening ceremony.

But for Jordaan, criticism of this tournament is about more than the usual gripes about overrunning budgets and delayed projects. It's about the way the rest of the world views Africa. Franz Beckenbauer, who led Germany's bid for 2006, questioned whether an African country could host the event. "The organisation for the World Cup in South Africa is beset by big problems," he said in 2006. "But these are not South African problems – these are African problems."

Other senior European football officials have been just as scathing, while South Africans have become used to the over-the-top reporting of crime by sections of the European, including British, media. South Africa has a shockingly high crime rate – roughly 50 murders a day – but as bad as it is, it rarely affects tourists. Yet the Daily Star has warned of a "machete race war", while more serious newspapers have run stories warning that fans will need flak jackets and teams will require armed guards. The fact that both the British Lions rugby team and the England cricket team have toured South Africa in the past 12 months with few problems appears to go unreported. Andrew Strauss did not spend his time in Johannesburg holed up in his hotel room; the 40,000 British and Irish Lions rugby fans did not peruse the luxury shopping malls at Sandton while wearing stab vests.

The hyperbole reached levels of parody in January, when the Togolese national team was attacked by a rebel group in Angola while on the way to the Africa Cup of Nations. The incident, critics exclaimed, showed that Africa could not protect players or fans. It did not seem to matter that Cabinda, the place of the attack, was 2,000 miles from Johannesburg. As an exasperated Jordaan pointed out at a subsequent press conference, the Madrid train bombings did not call into question Germany's ability to host the 2006 Cup.

The first time I met Jordaan, two years ago, he was angry about the constant sniping from the European media and football officials. "We want to explode the myth that there is a contradiction between being African and being world-class," he told me, standing outside the new Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, which in 2008 still resembled a building site. "And it is a myth," he added with a wave of his finger.

With the World Cup less than a month away, he is more relaxed now. "If we cannot convince them now, we will never convince them," he says, before very calmly going through every major claim after another, ending each with the simple rejoinder: "They were wrong." Stadiums won't be ready on time? They were wrong. No one will buy tickets? They were wrong. Fifa will make a loss? They were wrong.

The legacy of apartheid is not just high crime and high poverty. Fighting such a system has, Jordaan argues, "strengthened [South Africans'] resolve to say we will prove you wrong. We come from a history where I was told that I cannot vote, I am not good enough, I do not have equal worth. If we had accepted those conditions, we would still live under apartheid. We proved all those things to be wrong.

"In 1990, when Mandela walked out of prison, they said the country would go up in flames. Well, it didn't happen. In 1994, they said the election would never succeed and there would be chaos and bloodshed. Well, it didn't happen. We have gone through our own history creating defining moments. One of those moments will be the World Cup 2010."

The "they" to whom Jordaan refers are not limited to foreigners. Some of the harshest criticism has come from inside South Africa; most of it from whites. As Professor Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the University of Johannesburg, told me: "Some white people assume black people can't run a coffee shop, let alone a World Cup."

Yet, as the opening game draws closer, internal criticism is abating. For decades, football has been seen as a black sport, but the crowds at last year's Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm-up, were refreshingly mixed-race. The so-called "Football Friday", which encourages South Africans to wear the yellow national team shirt to work on the last day of the week, has proved immensely popular with whites as well as blacks. "Reconciliation is an important aim of this World Cup," says Jordaan. "We want to make this country better and more united, and I think we will achieve that."

Of all the matches at the World Cup, the first-round pairing of South Korea against Greece on 12 June is arguably the least exciting prospect. But it is the match that will mean the most for Jordaan. It is the first to take place at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, the city in which Jordaan grew up. Under apartheid rules, the stadium had been split into areas for different races. The VIP seats in the main stand, where Jordaan will take his seat, had been reserved for whites. "To sit in an area that was previously for whites only is an indication of the road we have travelled," he smiles. An indication, too, of the personal road Jordaan has travelled. "From being excluded to being the organiser of the biggest event on Earth is something special."

'Africa United' by Steve Bloomfield (Canongate, £12.99) is out now