Mark Gleeson on the hors d’oeuvre to South Africa’s World Cup feast

Accentuating the country’s many positives has been poorly done by an inept public relations department, but the reality is the 2010 World Cup is well on course, with impressive stadia and massive infrastructure upgrades fast nearing completion.

As a tourist destination, South Africa has grown rapidly since its days of cultural, economic and sporting isolation and it now draws millions of visitors, rapidly growing an industry that should cope comfortably with an estimated 500,000 visitors next year.

The four venues to be used in the Confederations Cup are all at altitude, which in the case of Johannesburg is at 1,800metres above sea level and Bloemfontein 1,300m, and will impact on those sides who have not prepared themselves to play in the thinner air. It will be brisk, sometimes moderately cold at night, which are possibly the ideal conditions for football.

Coca-Cola Park (formerly known as Ellis Park), the venue for rugby union’s World Cup Final in 1995, will host the opening game as well as the Final. The Johannesburg venue has had some minor renovations, but the newly laid pitch has come in for some heavy criticism.

Loftus Versfeld, a 40-minute ride down the motorway in Pretoria, has a perfect pitch and is also a famous old rugby venue that has been upgraded for the Confederations Cup and next year’s World Cup.

Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium has had more extensive renovation work carried out but has also been finished in good time.

These three venues are also being used for the Lions rugby tour, which
is being held at the same time as the Confederations Cup, thereby forging a remarkably cordial relationship between the two sports which tug at the various extremes of South African society.

The fourth Confederations Cup venue is the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which recently extended its capacity to beyond 40,000 and is owned by the Bafokeng people, whose land sits above lucrative platinum deposits. It is on the outskirts of the provincial town of Rustenburg, a two-hour car ride north west of Johannesburg.

The Bafokeng have invested their spoils wisely and have an impressive stadium, albeit in a poor area on the approach road to the Sun City resort, which was re-opened in March when South Africa scored a last-minute winner to beat Norway 2-1 in the Nelson Mandela
challenge match.

A fifth venue had been originally scheduled but Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was deleted from the list in July last year because it was feared that construction work would not be ready in time. With the 2010 organising committee unable to furnish any concrete guarantees, FIFA was not prepared to gamble on including the stadium. The city council was bemused and angry but all its protestations fell on deaf ears.

As it turned out, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was completed in time but now, instead of hosting Confederations Cup matches, this purpose-built football ground will now be inaugurated with a Lions tour match – just one of the many delicious ironies in a country where the apartheid legacy in sport is still reflected in infrastructure.

However, that will all have been balanced by next year with impressive footballing cathedrals going up in Cape Town, Durban and at Soccer City in Johannesburg, which is to be the centrepiece of the World Cup.

Until then, the Confederations Cup is likely to be smothered in a tight, potentially suffocating security blanket, given the fears that a criminal incident will produce headlines of the wrong kind worldwide.

South Africa might have won the first battle of confidence by seeing off the repeated question of whether it will actually get to stage the 2010 event, but the country must still prove it is a worthy host.

The Confederations Cup will be a keenly watched test.

Part one of the Confederations Cup guide

Team-by-team guide to the Confederations Cup