Hope stirs as a nation holds its breath

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The Independent Football

The worst day in Thengani Khumalo's "diary of life" will always be 6 July 2000. That was the day when Khumalo, an average South African sports fan, and his friends took time off work to gather in a cafe here and witness what they considered to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

The worst day in Thengani Khumalo's "diary of life" will always be 6 July 2000. That was the day when Khumalo, an average South African sports fan, and his friends took time off work to gather in a cafe here and witness what they considered to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

For Khumalo, 29, the prospect of listening to Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, football's world governing body, unveil South Africa as the first African host of the World Cup was more gratifying than watching the World Cup final itself.

"It was like watching live television coverage of the first ever human landing on Mars - an opportunity never to be missed," he said. For Khumalo and his friends, South Africa's selection to host the World Cup was not only inevitable, it was a foregone conclusion.

After all, South Africa had even beaten off England, the country which invented the game, in the preliminary bidding. There also seemed to be a universal consensus that it was now time for Africa to stage football's biggest showcase. Nothing seemed to stand in the way of Africa's economic and political giant.

But the hopes of a nation were shattered when Blatter produced that infamous piece of paper marked, "Deutschland".

"I felt like I had lost my whole family - mother, father, siblings and my own children - in one car accident," Khumalo said. "That became the most tragic day in my diary of life and it remains so."

South Africa lost to Germany by one vote after Charles Dempsey, a New Zealander and the former President of the Oceania Confederation, abstained, handing Germany a 12-11 victory. If Dempsey had voted for South Africa, as he had been mandated to by his Confederation, South Africa and Germany would have tied on 12 apiece and Blatter would have cast the deciding vote. He had been widely expected to vote for South Africa after the African backing for his election to the Fifa presidency on the strength of promises to bring the tournament to the continent.

Now, as the final countdown to Saturday's vote on the host of the 2010 World Cup approaches, the country is holding its breath again.

"Surely not this time round," said Lengane Morokwane, who sat with Khumalo on that fateful day in 2000. "We can't be robbed again."

After Fifa agreed that the 2010 tournament must be held in Africa under a new rotation system, South Africa is pitted mainly against Morocco and Egypt. When voting begins on Saturday, Dempsey, still considered South Africa's enemy No 1, will no longer be there. But South Africa's bid team, led by Danny Jordaan, has not taken any chances.

They have met virtually everyone who is anybody in world football, roping in South Africa's most valuable asset, the former President Nelson Mandela, on the campaign trail.

It was not only the honour of being the first African country to host the World Cup that drove Khumalo, and many others in this football-crazed nation of 45 million, near to heart attacks in 2000 and threatens to do the same this time. Already, the talk is that money will flow into the South African economy if the country wins the bid.

South Africa's projected income as host nation is estimated at about $550m (£313m), excluding the contributions from Fifa and the other millions from football tourism. An economic impact study, compiled for local football bodies, says hosting the finals would create about 160,000 jobs, a major boost in a country reeling from widespread poverty and 35 per cent unemployment. It would also further lift South Africa's international profile.

"A successful World Cup would prove to the world that South Africa can do anything, including hosting any new multi-billion investments in mining, agriculture, commerce or any other sector," said Bill Higgins, an economics academic. "The World Cup is arguably the biggest sporting event in the world. It is in fact impossible to compute all the positive benefits it will bring."

He added that hosting the tournament would be the best impetus to further improvements in public infrastructure, particularly roads and telecommunications.

Confidence that South Africa will make it this time round has been boosted by the report of Fifa's inspection team, which rated as "excellent" the country's ability to host the tournament and put it ahead of Egypt and Morocco. South Africa has already successfully hosted the cricket World Cup in 2003, the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the 1996 African Nations Cup.

But fears about the country's high crime rate remain a major blight on the bid. With a murder reported every 23 minutes, South Africa is often described as "the murder capital of the world", more dangerous even than Chicago and Colombia.

But Jordaan says the crime threat is being exaggerated. All those major events would not have gone off successfully if crime was such a problem, he argues.

"I acknowledge there is crime in the country, but it is not something we should have to lose sleep about," he said this week.

The Fifa inspection team helped calm the security fears by acknowledging that South Africa had the experience to handle the security requirements. In fact, to many ordinary South Africans, another positive aspect of the World Cup is the opportunity it would provide for the government to beef up security by putting more policemen on the streets.

In media interviews many South Africans appear cautiously optimistic. Even though Dempsey will not be around on Saturday, there is an understandable fear of dirty tricks that might cost the country the chance to host football's primary showcase. And information that many European countries might go for Morocco and Egypt for reasons of proximity is unsettling many.

Come Saturday around 1pm here, an entire nation will once again come to a standstill in anticipation. Thengani Khumalo will again gather at his favourite cafe in Johannesburg's Melville suburb. Just like Jordaan, he does not even want to entertain the idea of another disappointment. "If God exists, then he must exist for us all," he says.