The ugly truth about the beautiful game

When South Africa was chosen to host the 2010 World Cup, it was hailed as a chance to 'give something back' to Africa. But, as Alex Duval Smith reports, the biggest event on Earth will do little for the planet's poorest people
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The Independent Football

Heralded as a historic turning point for an unlucky continent, Africa's first-ever World Cup – which kicks off in Johannesburg next Friday – increasingly looks like the playground for the rich that its critics decry. As final preparations are made in the host cities to welcome some of the world's most famous, and most well-paid, sportsmen, tangible benefits elsewhere in Africa from the world's biggest sporting event look as elusive as ever.

Under strict bylaws enforced at the insistence of football's governing body, informal traders – a crucial part of any African economy – have been banned around the 10 stadiums where matches will be played. Even the future of the most important legacy project of the tournament – public bus transport – is in the balance, amid government reticence to stand up to South Africa's powerful minibus-taxi industry. Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, which expects to earn more than £3bn from sponsorship and television rights, has insisted that the event is about "giving back to Africa what the continent has given world football" through its players. The organisation points to the 20 "centres for hope" – football academies – that it will build.

But radical Sowetan columnist Andile Mngxitama said all Fifa is giving Africa is a month-long feel-good episode which will do little, long-term, to change perceptions or economic realities. "The World Cup is a colonial playground for the rich and for a few wannabes in the so-called South African elite," he argued. "Whereas in the past we were conquered, the South African government has simply invited the colonisers this time." He claims that the £4bn spent by the government on infrastructure development in the nine host cities should have been used to create sustainable jobs in industry.

Despite disappointment over immediate economic benefits from the World Cup, researchers say jobs created by infrastructure projects have helped South Africa through the recession. Udesh Pillay, of the South African Human Sciences Research Council, said: "It will not be possible to say that the event has reduced poverty. But 150,000 jobs were created in the build-up to the event and it will contribute 0.2 to 0.5 per cent to our growth, which is noteworthy in a recession."

South Africa is one of the smallest economies ever to have organised a World Cup. And with 40 per cent unemployment and a further 30 per cent of the population living on less than £100 a month, its balance sheet is far more stretched than that of recent host nations, such as Germany, Korea-Japan or France.

The African credentials of the event have also been called into question after it became clear that Fifa's ultra-secure internet ticketing system had left most of the continent unable to buy seats. With Visa as a major sponsor, Fifa kept ticket sales online until 15 April when poor sales forced them to open ticketing booths in the host country. As a result, only 11,000 African fans outside South Africa have purchased tickets, even though a record six African teams – the hosts, as well as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria – have qualified. Local organising committee chairman Danny Jordaan admits the African sales have been a disappointment. "Tickets sold best in countries like the United States, where internet penetration is the highest. Yet we know that African fans often do not have credit cards and access to the internet, and they prefer to hand over their cash and get their ticket. It is a lesson for the future."

Amid low ticket sales overall, especially in the northern hemisphere, tourism visitor figures for the World Cup have been revised downwards to 200,000 – about the same number of people that visit South Africa during an average summer season from November to February. This has prompted local airlines and hotels to slash their prices for the coming month, and for local business to bemoan the lack of financial benefit the event will bring.

In the light of low international take-up of tickets, Fifa and its sponsors have organised "Fan Fests" with large screens in major European cities. But none are planned for the African continent outside South Africa. Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke said television rights had, however, been offered free to national broadcasters in most African countries. "Municipalities in African capitals are free to organise large screens for fans," he said.

There are few signs that the South African World Cup has rubbed off on the rest of the continent. In the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, restaurateur Tegenaw Gashaw said his television would be switched on but that it always was anyway, for the English Premiership. "We are proud to know the World Cup is being hosted in an African country but we worry, because of South Africa's terrible reputation for crime, that it is all going to go wrong and do more harm than good for the continent."

In West Africa, which has four qualified teams, the excitement is greater. In Ivory Coast at the moment, everyone seems to be wearing orange – the colour of the strip of their national team, The Elephants – and hopes are high there for a miracle from Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and his team-mates.

Yet the excitement is only as great as it would be for any World Cup featuring the national team, according to Ivory Coast photographer Thierry Gouegnon. "There would have been room for the South African embassy or for their companies here to organise a party. I think that is what we were all expecting."

The World Cup will reach two remote outposts in Africa, but not thanks to Fifa; Unicef, the United Nations children's body, is setting up large screens in refugee camps in Zambia and Rwanda.

In South Africa, the Fifa bylaws restricting hawkers have been met with shock. The laws aim to protect Fifa's sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, from rival soft-drink sales. The organisation has already brought more than 400 cases for "ambush marketing" against South African companies and individuals. The Cape Town police have a special unit to clear hawkers from the Green Point Stadium area.

On Monday, The Elders – a group of international statesmen and women including Nelson Mandela – expressed concern about the Fifa bylaws. Former Irish president Mary Robinson said "small street vendors" were being pushed aside and that the World Cup could increase the trafficking of sex workers. A call by artists for a boycott of the pop concert at Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg, headlined by Shakira and Alicia Keys and due to be broadcast all over the world, has met with broadening support. People have been angered by the news that the event is a fundraiser for Fifa's 20 football academies in Africa, despite the enormous profits that Fifa is likely to secure from the World Cup. Meanwhile, the South African government recently turned to the World Bank for a loan to upgrade the country's electricity generation capacity.

The artists complain that the concert, organised by LA-based promoter Control Room, is overly "American". Mabutho "Kid" Sithole, president of the Creative Workers' Union of South Africa, said: "South African artists are equal in ability to international stars and must not be ignored on their own soil." He complained that only three local acts had been included, even though his union had demanded 80 per cent South African content.

Among the country's large community of emigré Africans, the World Cup is seen as a respite from xenophobia. But local media have in recent days reported on a whispering campaign in South African townships suggesting that African foreigners will be targeted for attack after 12 July – the day after the final. The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa) has started to catalogue the threats.

The most palpable legacy project of the World Cup for ordinary South Africans is the introduction of bus services to connect townships to cities. But a vehicle in the Rea Vaya bus network in Johannesburg was attacked shortly after it went into service in March. The country's powerful minibus-taxi syndicates, who previously held a monopoly on transport, have threatened to disrupt traffic during the tournament. It is unclear whether the government has reached a lasting agreement with the taxi industry to clarify the role of minibuses after July.

Yet Jordaan insists on the long-term benefits of the month-long, 64-match event. He believes it will be a nation-builder, worth every penny. He says that, in the world of football at least, Africa's voice will be heard more than it has in the past through an emboldened Confederation of African Football. And he argues that the billions spent by the South African government on preparing the country for the tournament will pay off. "The new infrastructure, like the roads, the airport expansion and the investment in telecoms will be there after the World Cup and will help our economy grow," he said.