Michael Church in South Africa

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 2010, 12:00am

Sepp Blatter is a man who rarely receives praise beyond that of the sycophants who line the political corridors of world soccer.

Yet with the first World Cup in Africa just days away, the Fifa president deserves some credit for making sure nothing detracts from the serious business at hand in South Africa.

In both 1998 and 2002, the start of the World Cup was overshadowed by the very public power plays involving Blatter and his assorted rivals as they battled for the right to the top job in the global game.

Those fractious fights in Paris and Seoul for the presidency of world soccer's governing body detracted from the build-up to the sport's greatest event as the shenanigans that engulfed the Fifa Congress saw the spotlight devoted to the dark underbelly of the game.

Soccer was airing its dirty laundry during prime time, when the spotlight was fixed more intently on the sport than at any stage over the preceding four years and no one came out of the mess in a positive light.

With the grubby business of the congress concluded a little more than 24 hours before the opening game, the sour after-taste left by the political posturing would often linger well into the first week of the tournament.

That all changed in 2003 when Fifa - at Blatter's behest - extended the presidential term from four to five years on a one-off basis to shift any future election into a non-World Cup year.

With the prospect of a presidential battle removed from its agenda, the congress in Berlin in the run-up to the 2006 finals in Germany barely registered in the public domain and now, as South Africa's moment in the sun approaches, the focus remains intently on the game and the host country.

For the sake of this World Cup, that can be only a positive. Had the presidential elections been due at this week's congress, the chances are another bitter battle would have been fought in the media.

Speculation has circulated for months that Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam is lining up for a run at Blatter - his former ally and friend - and, had that taken place in Johannesburg, the chances are it would have been ugly.

The first warning shots have already been fired by both sides and an uneasy truce is now in place, but should that fight take place - and 12 months is a long time in soccer politics - it will only happen at the next congress, in May next year. That leaves the way clear for the real stars of the show to shine unhindered while the South Africans showcase their country to the world.

With the government having spent 17.4 billion rand (HK$17.3 billion) in direct investment in infrastructural and stadium-building projects, the cost of hosting this World Cup will be high.

South Africa is a country in which the average annual salary is US$10,100, 24 per cent of the workforce is unemployed and 50 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Such lavish spending on a four-week-long sports event, therefore, has not gone without criticism.

Crime levels have also been a focal point in the run-up to the tournament, with the government countering the unflattering publicity generated by one of the highest murder rates in the world by spending 666 million rand to increase security and the number of CCTV cameras in use across the nation.

The South African media, meanwhile, has turned on Fifa, questioning the huge profit the game's governing body will turn at an event where the host nation has stumped up such significant sums to ensure it is capable of hosting the event with as few issues as possible.

The 2010 World Cup is expected to earn the game's governing body anywhere between US$3.2 billion and US$4 billion from marketing, television sales and other revenues, while the hosts are hoping the influx of foreign visitors - expected to be about 350,000 during the four weeks - can ensure they at least cover their costs.

Yet with Fifa determined to deny anyone beyond their marketing partners the opportunity to gatecrash the party - including the countless small-scale street vendors who had hoped to earn some money - the chance of any kind of financial trickle down to the most impoverished South Africans looks remote.

And yet, when the first whistle blows at Johannesburg's Soccer City on Friday and South Africa officially kicks off the African continent's first World Cup against Mexico, much of that will be forgotten by the world at large in favour of the flag-waving patriotism that makes the tournament so intoxicating.

Amid the din of the blaring vuvuzelas - the long plastic trumpet that is sure to become the enduring symbol of this World Cup - the world's best will once again go head-to-head and for billions of soccer fans during those four weeks, nothing else will matter.