(Reuters) – South African leaders, concerned that flagging African fortunes will undermine interest in the continent’s first World Cup, are urging the population to stick with the tournament even if their side is eliminated.
FIFA and local organizers have long been concerned that South Africa’s early elimination, which now looks inevitable, would reduce not only the crowds and passion but also dilute the unifying effect of the tournament in a country still torn by racial and social divisions.
South Africa’s slim chances of avoiding the ignominy of being the first host nation eliminated in the first round depend on a big win over France on Tuesday.
This looks unlikely based on their uninspiring form, even though France, winners in 1998 and runners up in 2006, are themselves torn by bickering and dissent.
Even the Bafana Bafana players now seem resigned to defeat and are concentrating on going out with honor.
South Africans are, however, likely to have few other African teams, if any, to support in the second round.
Cameroon were the first team eliminated from the World Cup after defeat by Denmark on Saturday night and Ghana is the only team to have won so far in the tournament.
Some of the coldest winter weather on record and the disappointing African results have already left fan parks virtually empty in many places.
South African leaders issued statements emphasizing that the country will have scored a major success even if their team is eliminated because of the kudos and economic impact of hosting the continent’s first edition of the tournament.
“The success of the World Cup is our success. As a country and as a continent, we have already won….no one can take that feeling and pride away from us,” said President Jacob Zuma.
SUPPORT UNTIL THE END
Chief local organizer Danny Jordaan said he was confident South Africans would “continue to support the World Cup until the end.”
Business leaders canvassed by South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper also called for continued support and emphasized the economic benefits of hosting the tournament, primarily through future investment, tourism and the boosting of infrastructure.
The paper quoted Jabu Mabuza, executive chairman of the big Southern Sun hotel chain, as telling his staff: “In reality, we in our heart of hearts would never have expected to win the World Cup and hence lets celebrate not the result but rather what the World Cup means for all of us.”
“Even if we as a country don’t go through to the next round, we have so much to celebrate,” he said.
Analysts say the World Cup has already united the races in South Africa in a wave of nationalism that swept the country in the weeks before the tournament began on June 11.
This event has been compared to the 1995 rugby World Cup when Nelson Mandela wore a Springbok shirt in a masterful political gesture that reassured whites still nervous one year after the end of apartheid, when civil war still seemed possible.
But the Springboks won that year, in contrast to Bafana Bafana’s poor performance in this much bigger event.
In any case, although analysts believe pride over hosting the tournament successfully despite a sea of negative reporting beforehand will be a unifying factor, they say this will be a temporary phenomenon as it was in 1995.
Only major progress in reducing the army of poor and unemployed and the correction of some of the world’s greatest wealth disparities will really unite this troubled nation, and that could take years, not a month-long sports event, they say.
(Editing by Ossian Shine)