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Africa's long road to 2010

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Piers Edwards | 13:13 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

"The World Cup is coming to Africa - I can't believe it. It just makes me believe that anything is possible."

The words of a female DJ as I listened to the radio in Lesotho just 10 days ago. An attitude which encapsulates the wonder many are feeling across Africa - still incredulous that the planet's biggest sports event is coming here.

To the only continent never to have hosted the Olympics nor the World Cup. Until now that is.

For those living in South Africa itself, the incredulity goes even deeper. Twenty years ago, hosting the World Cup was an impossible dream. Still under the grip of apartheid, South Africa was a pariah state, banned from football by Fifa, and the prospect of playing any match, let alone hosting the world, was a mere flight of fancy.

But now we're a month away from a tournament which many, including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, fully expect to change Africa's poor global standing - broadly known for such negative images as war, famine, HIV/Aids corruption - while the more football-minded simply hope a new playing generation will shine brightly in 10-15 years' time, as those who grew up inspired by Africa's first World Cup hit maturity.

"I'm hoping an African side can do really well, perhaps even win it," says former South Africa defender Mark Fish. "Then we can ask Fifa why we can't have seven, eight, perhaps even nine teams representing Africa in future World Cups."

That the World Cup is in South Africa is largely thanks to the efforts of Fifa chief Sepp Blatter and former anti-apartheid activist Danny Jordaan, who's been working relentlessly since 1994 to get the unlikely dream off the ground.

Yet the foundations were laid many years ago. The 1966 World Cup is not the most obvious turning point but that year Africa boycotted the finals in protest at the allocation of one place between Asia and itself at the 'World Cup'.

Workers complete areas around Cape Town Stadium
Workers are still putting finishing touches to areas around Cape Town Stadium

The dramatic move - which came exactly 100 years after the continent's first recorded football match - worked, for Africa had its own representative at the next finals.
1974 was also a significant milestone. Not at the World Cup though, where the maiden sub-Saharan appearance was a disaster as Zaire (now DR Congo) lost all their matches with a 0-14 goal record.

However, the real nadir came when Mwepu Ilunga infamously ran out of the wall to hammer away a Brazilian free-kick - the African champions attracting widespread ridicule for not knowing the rules.

But that year, Joao Havelange used dozens of African votes to win the Fifa presidency off Sir Stanley Rous - and the game changed forever, booming commercially.

The Brazilian had promised the continent its own prizes in return, which came as the World Cup expanded to 24 teams in 1982, meaning Africa now had two places, while Fifa's inaugural youth tournaments were held in Tunisia (the U20s in 1977) and Nigeria (what is now the U17 World Cup in 1985).

Had a certain Mr Dempsey not come along, Africa might already have staged the World Cup but Blatter acted decisively following that voting failure in 2000.

One month later, he oversaw the installation of Fifa's rotation system and one year later, Africa was chosen to start the new policy - which explains Blatter's rare popularity here.
"We're very grateful to Fifa and Blatter," says Fish.

"The journey of African football has been a long one and South Africa, from the apartheid era to the democratic elections of 1994, has also come a long way. Now it's a massive step to be hosting the world's biggest sporting event on our continent."

Africa has displayed its enormous passion for football time and again, and many more tales will emerge during what could be the most colourful World Cup to date. And with the finals providing the greatest 31-day commercial for the continent, pride will swell from Cape Town to Cairo and from Dakar to Dar-es-Salaam.

In a land crippled by nepotism and corruption, football is a rare meritocracy - an area where an individual can rely on his own talents to move up in the world. By coincidence or not, it's also one of few areas where Africa does not just live with the best but beats them too.

The life story of George Weah, who rose from a Monrovian slum to be crowned the world's best footballer in 1995, is still an inspiration to many.

Football even had the capacity to briefly stop his homeland's civil war since Liberia matches in the 1990s would, to quote the current president, 'bring sudden voluntary ceasefires between the warring factions' as they joined their enemies to watch the games.

"It is in our hands to unite our country, our continent and the world in a footballing feast," South African President Jacob Zuma said yesterday.
Now where's that damned vuvuzela?


  • Comment number 1.

    Nice stuff Piers. Your writing is uncluttered and i enjoy reading the clarity of your thoughts and findings as an European journalist writing about African football. While some people might accuse you of smugness or question your motive as an outsider when you write about the negative things that choke the beautiful game in Africa, your analysis is always spot on! The continent can't wait!! The buzz is unbelievable!!!

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm really excited about this World Cup. Over the past few competitions, African teams have given a brilliant account of themselves, examples including Nigeria in 1998, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2006. So I think that, even without the FIFA rotation system for the World Cup, it would have only been a matter of time before the competition came to Africa anyway.

    I really hope that, provided this World Cup goes as smoothly as planned, this will set a precedent for all other African nations to try and put their bids in to attempt to host the World Cup themselves, which would inevitably have cultural, economical and political benefits for the host nations, as well as a brilliant opportunity for locals to get their chance to watch world class football live. As the Confederations Cup and the Cup of African Nations have shown us, Africans are supremely passionate about football, and it's only fitting for them to get opportunities like this.

    I look forward to it with interest!

  • Comment number 3.

    Fair write up but lacks some accuracy in historical facts.

    "while Fifa's inaugural youth tournaments were held in Tunisia (the U20s in 1977) and Nigeria (what is now the U17 World Cup in 1985".

    Nigeria did not host the Inauguaral edition of the U-17 World Cup but were the champions. China actually hosted the competition.

  • Comment number 4.

    With regards to the finishing touches outside Cape Town Stadium. The paving was completed in 2009 and nobody really knows why they have ripped up parts of the forecourt. It could possible be for cables, or perhaps the paving pattern was not up to standard or the paving quality needed to be improved.

    Piers,you should blog about the Fan Walk in Cape Town, which stretches from Cape Town station to the stadium. Images along the way would be great too.

    Lets hope the BBC are not literally blown away by Cape Town from their rooftop studio.

  • Comment number 5.

    Lovely to read your blog Piers . It will be great to see the worldcup in a completely new environment . Its a breath of fresh air for football . World Cup is just not a European game , its a worldwide game . I expect more African and Asian countries to bid for hosting the World Cup in the future . May be because the authorities believe that the facilities provided by the Africans is not adequate but I'm sure this perception will change once the World Cup kicks off . Cheers !

  • Comment number 6.

    I very much enjoyed your post, Mr. Edwards. It was well-written and read more like a story than a report despite the massive amount of information it related. I recently started an internship at an organization called Alive&Kicking. Their trade is a charitable one: they encourage the purchase and subsequent donation of soccerballs, which happen to be covered in AIDS and malaria related messages, to African children who otherwise would not be able to play soccer. The balls are manufactured in Africa by Africans, and so far the industry has produced over 150 jobs.
    As you might guess, we are very interested in all matters related to soccer, Africa, the World Cup and health, among other things.
    For more information, please feel free to check out our website ( ) and our blog ( ).
    Any feedback is very much appreciated.

  • Comment number 7.

    It's been a joy to read this well written blog. Thanks.

    This World Cup event in South Africa has the potential of being the best ever. Why not ?

    Dr. Cajetan Coelho

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    I future, Africa deserves to host also the Olympics; they have so many talents that changed the world. First names that comes into my mind with exceptional result: Nelson Mandela, Moses Kiptanui, Muhammad Ali etc ... It will probably be as spectacular as World Cup, but it is an enormous financial effort which I don't know they can support. preturi termopane. But, together with another country it can be possible.


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