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Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup

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As the group stage of the World Cup winds down, the teams who are qualified to continue on to the elimination stage have been all but decided. While it would have been glorious if the home side of South Africa could have advanced, or even more than one team from the host continent (at this writing barring a miracle only Ghana will advance), the fact they were in a position to host the games at all is something to be celebrated.

All credit for making the decision to award them the hosting duties has to be given to the governing body of international football – Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) – when they could have easily made a safe decision and kept them in Europe or given a South American country a turn. In the weeks and months leading up the match newspapers have been filled with stories expressing concerns about violence in South Africa, lack of proper facilities, transportation, and a raft of other problems besetting the host nation.

It was almost impossible to find anyone willing to write something positive about the fact the games were being held here. Even South African's football fans came in for criticism because of their use of the "horrible" vuvuzela, a plastic replica of a traditional tribal horn, that makes an ear-splitting din. Commentators have sniffed that they won't be able to hear themselves speak (as if anything most sports commentators have to say is of any real value), or even worse they drown out the traditional sound of fans singing at matches. As that's only really a tradition in England and some of the European countries, that's not really much of a loss, especially when you consider some of the drivel sung by team supporters in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly fans blowing trumpets that make an ear-splitting noise are a minor inconvenience when compared to the nightmares that British team supporters used to cause when they made their annual raiding trips to the continent. It's amazing how all the British tabloid press who have been raising dire warnings about South Africa have forgotten how fans from the United Kingdom were banned from traveling abroad after their rioting resulted in 39 people dying in Belgium in 1985.

Yet here we are, nearly halfway through the games, and even with half the private security people having gone on strike and a few technical problems, you'll hardly hear a word of complaint being voiced by anyone now they are underway. The only comments I've heard from commentators during the games I've watched is how wonderful the people of South Africa have been and how the whole nation seems to have thrown itself into trying to make them successful. I watched the first and last games the host nation played — their one all draw with Mexico and their two to one victory over France — and heard about how they would become the first host nation to fail to advance out of qualifying in ages. Yet, while I was disappointed for the players and their fans (while reveling in seeing the French players receive the humiliation they so richly deserved) I couldn't help thinking how wonderful to see the team playing in the World Cup and South Africa hosting it, no matter what the result.

Twenty years ago, in June of 1990, only four months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made one of his first international visits, to Canada. He came for two reasons: one was to thank the people of the country and our government for supporting the struggle against apartheid by boycotting everything to do with the white minority rule regime, and secondly to urge our government to not relax the economic sanctions prohibiting Canadians from doing business with South Africa. Even though he had been freed from jail, the white majority government continued to rule and the apartheid laws were still in force so victory was still far from assured at that time. It wasn't until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that you could really believe in the idea of a new South Africa.

If you're wondering why Mandela would visit a relatively internationally insignificant country like Canada on what was his first trip abroad, it was because our government at the time was one of the strongest advocates for sanctions in the so-called developed world. I wasn't a supporter of Brian Mulroney, and in fact disagreed with almost everything he and his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada stood for. However I will always admire the way in which he played a leading role in fighting for South African freedom. As it also involved publicly disagreeing with two of his biggest allies internationally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and President Ronald Reagan of the United States, neither of whom would support sanctions against South Africa, his actions were even more impressive.

While our government played a large role in the latter stages of the fight against apartheid, Mandela also appreciated the fact that Canadians as individuals had been active for much longer. While it was important for him to address our politicians, and I believe he became the first non-leader of a country to address our houses of parliament officially, he also made sure to address people directly. Whether high school students as the link above describes or a public rally in Toronto Ontario, he thanked them for their help. My mother was one of those who went to see him speak when he was in Toronto, and she came away feeling like she had been part of history. You see, ever since I was aware enough to understand, I knew she would never shop at certain stores because they wouldn't list where the fruit and vegetables they sold were grown. So at least from the late 1960s until the 1990s she never purchased anything grown or manufactured in South Africa, or had dealings with any company doing business with that country. Who could blame her for not feeling as if she might have had a little to do with helping ensure Mandela was able to stand there that day?

It has not been an easy 16 years for South Africa and Nelson Mandela since his election in 1994. For close to 100 years the majority of the nation's population had been living under the totalitarian rule of a small handful of invaders because of the colour of their skin. They had been forced to live in poverty and any attempt at protest was met with ruthless violence. School children were shot down in the street in 1976 in Soweto protesting a law forcing them to be taught in Afrikaner, the language of the rulers, and now they had to find a way to live peacefully with the people responsible for those crimes.

While majority rule has brought about changes in the way in which people are treated, there is no way to eradicate all the damage that was wrought during the previous decades. Who knows how many generations it will take until the societal imbalances between the races is changed? Poverty and lack of education among the majority population can not be overcome instantly. Any dreams of instant prosperity that people might have harboured with democracy were quickly shattered as the reality of the task facing them became clear. Yet in spite of all the obstacles facing them, this World Cup has shown the world that South Africa still believes in itself and continues to move forward. We can only hope that the people and her leaders can draw upon the success of the event to see for themselves just how far they have come in such a short time.

As time ran out on South Africa's final match of this World Cup, and the players and the fans celebrated their bittersweet victory over France, I was moved in a way that I didn't think possible by a sporting event as I thought back over the history leading up to this moment. It would have taken a minor miracle for them to be able to advance to the next stage of play, and it wasn't to be. Yet no matter what, the World Cup has to be considered a victory for South Africa and its people and one can't help but want to wish them well and hope for their continued success.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://philiptortora.blogspot.com/ Philip Tortora

    The World Cup soccer tournament ought to be played every two years, and should double the number of teams involved.

  • Zedd

    Nice treatment Richard.

    So relieved that the coverage doesn’t involve wild animals and montages of poor kids 3000 miles away in some other part of the continent.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Well, there are some shots of antelope and zebra in ESPN’s opening titles, Zedd, but those animals are indigenous to the country after all.

    Also prominent are shots of some quite amazing scenery, which makes me want to drop everything and go there now. And I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking so.

    Hopefully the economic benefits South Africa receives from hosting the World Cup will last for quite some time.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    As for Philip’s suggestion (#1), there are many reasons why holding the tournament every two years and doubling the number of participants is not a good idea.

    There’s a good case to be made that even the current 32-nation format is too many, making for an unwieldy, bottom-heavy tournament with a lot of mediocre teams. It also places a huge financial, infrastructural and administrative burden on the host country.

    The traditional 16-team format, which was used until 1978, is admittedly too small considering not only the number of nation-states there now are but also the rapid development of the sport on the Asian, African and North American continents.

    I think the 24-team format which was used from 1986 to 1994 gave a good balance: it led to more excitement in the group stage, since even some of the countries finishing third in a four-team group still had a chance to advance to the knockout rounds.

    Another objection is the near-impossibility of fitting a bi-annual World Cup into the already crowded football calendar. Philip does not take into consideration that the six continental confederations all hold their own international tournaments, not to mention the various national leagues and the continental championships that take place at club level. You’d have to somehow fit a qualifying competition into all of that, although admittedly it would require fewer matches than it currently does because of the increased number of places available at the Finals.

    The demand on the players would lead to increased rates of exhaustion and injuries and you’d see a far greater number of disappointing performances at the World Cup, by both teams and their star players.

    We already see this. Africa has produced some of the finest players in the world in recent decades, but their challenge at the World Cup suffers in part because of the CAF’s insistence on holding the African Nations’ Cup every two years, rather than every four as is the case with most of the other confederations.

    Lastly there’s the obvious point that having the World Cup with 64 teams every two years would just devalue the specialness of the tournament.