Monday, June 7, 2010

The South Africa World Cup Disaster Watch

With four days to go before competition begins, it's time to consider the implications of a World Cup in South Africa. Before broaching the subject, though, it would be irresponsible not to issue a few disclaimers. So: if the event comes off without a hitch, it will be an inspiring story for South Africa and the continent in general. It will provide a boost to the economy, and the image they present to the world. And as a negative disclaimer, it's worth mentioning that the greatest sporting tragedy happened in a European country.

That being said, I can't help but think a World Cup in such an unstable nation is a bad idea. South Africa's issues cover the spectrum, from infrastructure to politics to civil strife (the country leads the world in all categories of violent crime). RW Johnson did a great job documenting these problems in a short piece in May and a longer one from last December. In addition, South Africa's borders are frighteningly insecure. They had to submit a comprehensive security plan to FIFA before landing the Cup, but are we supposed to believe that disruptive elements can't slip through the cracks? Is that even possible?

In January of this year, the team bus of Togo was attacked by machine gunners en route to the African Cup of Nations. They were in neighboring Angola, but the theme of a bus attack was revived when the new World Cup transport buses were fired upon in Johannesburg by proponents of a rival minibus taxi agency.

And as if to illustrate the potential magnitude of a disaster, a stampede this past weekend before a Nigeria-North Korea friendly led to a worrisome police reaction. They blamed FIFA for issuing free tickets, and took far too long to summon ambulances to the scene. Luckily, nobody dies, and the stadium is not one that will be used during Cup play, but 15 people were hurt, and it demonstrated clearly that if something terrible does happen, the shoddy state of South Africa's police and rescue forces will seriously aggravate the damage.

Rumors are already circulating about potential terrorist attacks. While none have been verified by the US or any other international body, it does seem like the ideal time and place for an attack. Along with incredible exposure, foreign visitors, and an international audience, terrorists are gifted with an insecure border and a police force who will surely be stretched thin by an absurdly high rate of domestic crime. Under these conditions, can we really expect South Africa to put up a 'clean sheet'?

I'm on record: the World Cup in South Africa is a terrible idea. I'm very excited for the tournament itself, and I hope all teams, players, and fans stay safe. But I certainly don't expect it. I'm very uneasy with fearmongering, and hope I'm not guilty of it with this post. But let's just say that if the erratic ball turns out to be the biggest tragedy in South Africa over the next month, I'll be pleasantly surprised.