Leading article: The unification game kicks off

Related Topics

The World Cup – the biggest sporting spectacle on the planet – kicks off today in South Africa. It will do so to the low drone of tens of thousands of vuvuzelas, the metre-long plastic trumpets beloved of South African football fans.

And there will be some who hear a discordant note amid the celebrations. The competition might be the pinnacle of the beautiful game, but one would be hard-pressed to describe Fifa, the World Cup's organiser, as a beautiful organisation. The fears expressed (in private) last month by the former head of the English Football Association, Lord Triesman, about corruption in the governing body ended up costing him his job. But the smell of corruption has been hanging over Fifa for years. And world football's governing body has made precious little effort to disperse it.

The host nation has its troubles too. The progress of the rainbow nation since the end of apartheid in 1994 has been disappointing. Much of South Africa's black population still lives in dire poverty. There are appalling levels of inequality and violent crime.

And the country's political system often seems lost when faced with such vast social and economic problems. The president, Jacob Zuma, is no Nelson Mandela. And if the likes of the demagogic African National Congress youth leader, Julius Malema, have their way in future, South Africa could easily follow Zimbabwe down the road to economic suicide.

Mr Zuma has invited the 52 heads of all of Africa's nations to the opening game of the competition today in Johannesburg. But this does not feel like the moment of African emergence on the world stage that many hoped for when South Africa was announced as the host in 2004. The reality is that South Africa is probably only one of a handful of nations on the continent with the resources to stage the tournament.

Yet it would be wrong to ignore what South Africa has achieved in its preparations for this competition. The government has managed to build the new stadiums, the airports and the rail links (which visitors from around the world will admire over the next month) on time. Major sporting events are often criticised for being a waste of scarce resources. But this World Cup has provided an excuse for a major national building project in a country which desperately needed both the infrastructure and the jobs.

And what this competition means to South Africans should not be underestimated. President Zuma described 2010 as "the most important year in our country since 1994". That might sound like the typical hyperbole of a politician, but many of Mr Zuma's compatriots, especially black South Africans, would agree with him.

Rugby has traditionally been the game of the Afrikaner community. This is why it was such a healing moment for the country when, in 1995, the new president, Nelson Mandela, handed the Rugby World Cup trophy to the victorious white South African captain, Francois Pienaar. But football is the game of the black townships. If this World Cup can capture just a fraction of the racially unifying spirit of its rugby equivalent 15 years ago, it will surely be worth all the expenditure.

And football, for all the many deficiencies of its international powerbrokers, is still a unique international sporting bridge. From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to the pubs of England, to the slums of Lagos, to the bars of Tokyo, football – and this competition – will be the focus of a worldwide conversation during the next four weeks. As the global village expands, so does the power of the World Cup. As English fans know all too well, football does not always live up to its potential. But it always provides hope. And that is reason enough to blow a vuvuzela today.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent