A match between South Africa and Iraq would not usually draw much attention, but when the World Cup hosts and Asian champions kick off the Confederations Cup here tomorrow, the whole of Africa will breathe a sigh of relief. This might be the most significant game played on the continent to date, a welcome sign that, after all the doubts, South Africa will be capable of hosting the biggest sporting event in the world next summer.
It has not been an easy process. Heavy rain and high winds delayed construction in Durban, there were strikes at a number of venues, and costs have spiralled, but the start of the Confederations Cup should end any notion that the World Cup may be moved elsewhere.
The Confederations Cup, of course, is nowhere near the scale of the World Cup: there are eight teams as opposed to 32, 16 games as opposed to 64, and only a fraction of the number of travelling fans. But it is a start, and it indicates how much progress has been made. Most fundamentally, it means four of the 10 World Cup venues – Ellis Park in Johannesburg, the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein and the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg – are complete and functioning.
The symbolism was fairly clearly orchestrated, but a year to the week before the World Cup begins, a fifth venue, the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth, was also declared complete. It will be inaugurated with a rugby match between the British Lions and a Southern Kings Invitational XV on Tuesday.
"Seeing the incredible progress that has been made gives us all a sense of joy, pride and achievement," said Danny Jordaan, the manager of the national organising committee. "When we've said time and time again that 'this World Cup is going to happen and it's going to be successful', it's been easy for people to cast doubt because the event hasn't happened as yet. But we as South Africans and Africans are undoubtedly in the process of delivering."
There are, though, dissenting voices. "They are talking about it costing 20bn Rand (£1.5bn), but by the time the tournament comes round, it could be almost double that," said Marcus Solomon, a former inmate of Robben Island, who was a key figure in establishing football in the prison.
"That is a huge amount of money in a country that has so much poverty, and some of us find that problematic. How much will those stadiums be used afterwards? It's a total waste of money. They talk of great improvements in public transport, but we need that in any case. It's a misuse of money for something that is not needed – it would be better spent on education, or the health system."
Jordaan's insists that the stadiums will not be white elephants, although his suggestion that a number of rugby sides will move into the venues sounds vague. Perhaps that is understandable: after all, the tournament is happening, and his task is simply to ensure that it goes ahead as planned. "The stadiums will get completed," said Alf Oschatz, the project manager of the stadium in Durban. "Certain stadiums will have problems meeting their anticipated completion dates exactly, but overall the stadiums will not be the problem."
His implication, of course, is that certain other things will still be problematic. The biggest issue, perhaps, is crime, which is clearly a source of frustration to the usually urbane Jordaan. "What about crime? This is a question that was asked in Berlin, Beijing and New York, everywhere I went," Jordaan said. "The question of crime is quite separate and distinct from security around events."
Which is true, but it is little reassurance to know that if visitors to the World Cup are killed, it's not the fault of the World Cup Organising Committee. And the fears have substance. Although the murder rate is dropping, the most recent United Nations survey shows that 38.6 people per 100,000 are murdered in South Africa, a figure roughly 27 times that of Britain.
Murders may be decreasing, but other crimes are not. South African police reported a 4.4 per cent increase in car-jackings. Steps have been taken to address the issue, with around 200,000 police officers being deployed to provide security, backed up by a new fleet of vehicles and helicopters and a new computer system costing around £70m.
With 430,000 visitors expected next summer, strain will be placed on the infrastructure. Fifa estimates 55,000 hotel rooms are required, 15,000 more than are available at the moment, with plans already in place to bus fans into Nelspruit and Polokwane from nearby game reserves. A rapid transit scheme in Johannesburg, providing a fast lane for buses, was supposed to come into operation this month, but has been delayed following protests from taxi-drivers.
There will, inevitably, be further glitches and panics, genuine problems and scare stories. But for now, South Africa can relax in the knowledge that they have completed the first step – being ready for the Confederations Cup. The next thing is to ensure it runs smoothly.
Bafana bonanzas? South Africa's past as big-event hosts
With just under a year to go until 32 nations converge on South Africa for the 19th football World Cup, we take a look at how the country has fared when hosting other large scale
1995 RUGBY UNION WORLD CUP
Deemed to be a great triumph. Memorable image of President Nelson Mandela presenting the trophy to the South African team.
Attendance: 1.1 ml (34,375 per match)
Tournament tourists: 25,000
Number of games: 32
*1996 AFRICAN CUP OF NATIONS
South Africa were victorious on the field, but Nigeria's withdrawl provided problems off it.
Attendance: 537,880 (18,548)
Number of games: 29
*2003 CRICKET WORLD CUP
Did not go according to plan after England boycotted their group game against Zimbabwe because of security fears and political disputes.
Attendance: 626,845 (12,055)
Tournament tourists: 18,500
Number of games: 46 in South Africa, five in Zimbabwe and two in Kenya
*2007 WORLD TWENTY20
Successful two-week inaugural tournament which India won.
Attendance: 333,810 people (12,363)
Number of games: 27
2010 WORLD CUP:
Expected tourists: 430,000
Expected television audience: 2.78bnReuse content