Michael Church in South Africa

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am

When South Africa won the right to host the 2010 World Cup six years ago, the promise was of an influx of foreign visitors and a significant boost to the local economy. Inside the confines of the Gold Reef City casino, however, there's an air of a house with the lights turned on and the television left at full volume, but with the occupants having vacated the building.

The sound coming from a flatscreen TV in the corner broadcasting Mexico's clash with France echoes across the hallway and it's only when Javier Hernandez opens the scoring for the Mexicans that it becomes apparent the building isn't empty.

Several isolated, anguished cries bounce off the walls above the dull, musical ding of the poker machines as fans of South Africa - drawn in the same group as Mexico and France and desperately hoping for a draw - lament the impending downfall of the home nation's hopes.

Walking around the casino, it feels like it has barely been touched by the World Cup, save for a few stragglers left over from South Korea's loss to Argentina who have yet to leave after perching themselves at a blackjack table hours before.

It's not exactly a ghost town, but the casino floor is most certainly not benefiting from the influx of foreign visitors, many of whom are attending matches at the nearby Soccer City, the tournament's centrepiece stadium.

'When there are games on at the stadium, we get people coming in,' says Thabang, a waiter in one of the restaurants that surrounds the gaming floor. 'They go to the tables, they lose two or three thousand and then come back here and have lunch before going to the game. So, sometimes it's a little bit busy, but not as much as we had expected.'

The cold weather that has enveloped the country during the competition has done little to help boost the number of people coming through the doors of the resort, one of two casinos in the confines of Johannesburg.

Temperatures on Thursday evening plummeted to minus three degrees Celsius in the city - one of the lowest on record - to make this the coldest World Cup ever. Elsewhere in the country the mercury dropped even further, with temperatures of minus 10.3 degrees recorded.

To the cynical, it seems everything is starting to conspire against the South Africans as this World Cup completes its first full week of action.

'There's hardly been anyone here,' says Bongane, who works as a bouncer. 'There might be more people at the other casinos, but in here it's just the same as it always is, we've not seen as many people coming in from other countries like we had hoped.

'It doesn't help that Bafana Bafana are struggling. People aren't going to want to come out if the team are losing or aren't in the competition any more. It looks like we only have one more game and then the World Cup is over for us.'

The impending exit of the home team could have a detrimental impact on the tournament, aside from the slight it delivers on Carlos Alberto Parreira's players as they become the first host team to fail to progress beyond the group stages in the competition's history.

No World Cup has ever had to deal with the loss of the hosts so early and, with the mood of the country certain to change, their elimination moves Africa's first World Cup into unchartered territory for Fifa. Gone already is the optimism that swept many along before the tournament kicked off, and in its place is a dose of realism and - not surprisingly - finger pointing.

'We're just not good enough,' says Nick, a paramedic. 'This is the level of South African soccer. The big problem was Joel Santana [the former South Africa coach who was fired in October last year]. He earned US$2.5 million a year and what did we get? What did he put back? Nothing. That's why we are where we are now.'

South Africa's exit is only the latest problem in what has been a tournament beset by issues but which has, by and large, not been heavily criticised due to the enormous amount of goodwill bestowed upon the hosts. Infrastructure issues abound, with many of the projects that were initially presented to Fifa in South Africa's bid book reneged upon. As a result, travelling around the country is problematic with a limited train system that does not service the entire nation.

South African Airways has laid on extra flights to handle the demand for passengers between the major cities but it remains impossible - save for a 450-kilometre trek by car - to travel between venues such as Nelspruit and Rustenburg. In Johannesburg, gridlock has greeted fans on their way to Soccer City on match day, with many supporters incapable of reaching the stadium on time for kick-off after sitting in traffic for as long as three hours.

And then there's the prickly issue of security. The country's image has not been helped by reports of security staff protesting after being paid wages significantly lower than those initially promised.

The sight of South Africa's police force taking control of security at four venues - including Soccer City - has done little to instil faith in the organisers' promises of a trouble-free World Cup.

So far, the 2010 World Cup has passed off without major incident, but that may well have been as much through good fortune as it was design.

No matter who has been manning the security detail, it has not been unusual to enter a stadium without being screened at all; even on the occasions when metal detectors are used, there is a sense they are not being operated correctly. Beeps abound at every checkpoint as spectators walk through the machines but there are rarely any follow-up searches.

The mood in general has shifted - subtly for now - as the World Cup has fallen short of delivering what many had hoped it would, both on and off the field. It's taken only a week for the optimism to evaporate into the cold, dry South African winter air.