Football needs to tackle its stereotyping

Steve Bloomfield laments media reaction to the World Cup dra
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The Independent Football

It has already begun. Within minutes of the World Cup draw on Friday, Sky News reporters were commenting on how fortunate England were not to be playing in crime-ridden Johannesburg. The Times took up the same theme yesterday, warning that British tour operators would offer armed guards for fans travelling to World Cup matches. A German security firm has already advised their national team to wear flak jackets whenever they step outside their hotel.

South Africa has one of the highest crimes rates in the world, but it also attracts nine million tourists a year. Every major city in the world has places you wouldn't recommend visitors go to after dark. South Africa has successfully held cricket and rugby world cups and is currently hosting the England cricket team. Are any of the Barmy Army protected by armed guards? Is Andrew Strauss holed up in his hotel room, refusing to come out without a flak jacket?

The overblown rhetoric on crime, hyped up by security firms looking to make a sale, has been matched by scare stories about the lack of hotels and the paucity of public transport options. The stadiums wouldn't be ready, crowed the critics, until even the most myopic of them were forced to accept they would all be finished with plenty of time to spare.

There will be problems, of course. Every major tournament has them. Atlanta struggled with transport at the 1996 Olympics. In 2004 Athens fell so far behind it had to leave the roof off the swimming pool. But the criticism that South African organisers of the World Cup have faced is on a different level. "We want to explode the myth that there is a contradiction between being African and being world class," says Danny Jordaan, the former school teacher and anti-apartheid campaigner who heads the organising committee.

Like so much coverage of Africa, stereotypes can easily take over. Wars and humanitarian crises get far more exposure than stories about economic growth, technological advances and stability. The West's view of Africa is still seen through the prism of tragedy, meaning the story of Africa's first World Cup is read with a certain amount of cynicism. How could a continent that can't feed itself, is ruled by despots and always at war host one of the world's largest events?

Africa may also have its best ever chance of getting a team to the semi-finals but that won't stop commentators resorting to clichés when describing their football. Watch out for talk of naïve defending, bad goalkeeping and a lack of concentration. Because, of course, Africans can't concentrate.

Ivory Coast may concede a goal through a goalkeeping blunder, Ghana's defence may prove weak, and Nigeria might concede a last minute equaliser through a lack of concentration. But the same could be said about the England team. When Rio Ferdinand goes walkabout or David James drops a cross no one says, "those Europeans can't defend".

Hundreds of thousands of football fans, including tens of thousands from England, will travel to South Africa. A handful will be mugged, a few might even be carjacked. There will be stories about people left homeless after their hotel booking fell through and fans missing a crucial England match because the bus failed to turn up. But for the vast majority, it will be an amazing experience, one they will never forget. Their biggest gripe will be the noise of vuvuzelas, the plastic horns beloved by South African football fans which can sound like a swarm of angry wasps.

South Africans desperately want the World Cup to be a success. They will put on a great party. And if it helps to demolish a few stereotypes about Africa, so much the better.

Steve Bloomfield is author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, published by Canongate next year