Michael Church in South Africa

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am

Four kilometres below the highveld, not far from the bustling streets of Johannesburg, drills pound at a deafening volume and the air is thick with the smell of disintegrating rock.

By most standards, Johannesburg, known by many as Egoli, is a young city and the reason for its rapid growth since the late 19th century lies further and further beneath the surface with every passing year.

The mine shafts sink deeper to tap into the precious resource from which the city derives one of its many alternative names. Egoli means 'place of gold' and it is upon the rich seams that lie beneath the Witwatersrand hills that much of the region's wealth is based.

Gold was first discovered on the highveld in 1886, when the area that is now Johannesburg was a far cry from the sprawling urban mess that carries the name. Then, the area featured little more than a sprinkling of isolated farms.

The population soon exploded, with prospectors travelling from across Africa and all over the world to tap into yet another valuable resource found in such a relatively small area. From the diamonds discovered in the west to the platinum mined further north, South Africa lacks for little when it comes to precious metals and stones.

Johannesburg's growth owes everything to the gold rush, and the continued mining of the metal highlights the huge amounts present in the rock below the city. So significant are the reserves that South Africa is reckoned to have produced about 35 per cent of the world's gold.Extracting the metal is anything but a simple process. It takes eight tonnes of ore to produce just one ounce of gold and at the Crown Mines - which closed in 1977 after 90 years of operation - more than 1.4 million kilograms were extracted. At today's prices, that is equivalent to almost US$54.5 billion worth of gold.

It is little wonder, then, that Dutch traders, British colonists and numerous African tribes all congregated in what became Johannesburg to share the spoils.

So large has been the influx over the years that, with a population of more than 10 million, Johannesburg is the largest city in the world not situated either by the coast or along a river.

Despite its size and wealth, however, there is little endearing about this city. It lacks the charm of Cape Town, the historical significance of Pretoria or Bloemfontein or the ruggedness of Rustenburg.

Johannesburg sprawls, and as it grows outwards so its city centre has been left to decay as businesses have abandoned it for other more fashionable suburbs such as the glitzy Sandton, where the rich splash their cash at designer boutiques in shopping malls and five-star hotels.

And yet, because of its history and the source of its wealth, it almost seems fitting that the city's new showpiece venue should play host to the final of Africa's first World Cup final.

Because, when the winning captain hoists the World Cup trophy at Soccer City, he will do so with one of the world's most famously crafted pieces of gold.

Speculation and conjecture abound over the true make-up of the World Cup trophy, which has been in existence since it replaced the Jules Rimet Trophy given to Brazil in 1970 in recognition of their third world-title win.

First awarded in West Germany in 1974 - when it was won by the Franz Beckenbauer-led hosts - the existing trophy originally cost Fifa US$50,000 to produce. Recent estimates, however, claim the Silvio Gazzaniga creation is worth about US$10 million.

The game's governing body has always said the 6.17kg trophy was made of solid 18-carat gold, but a UK-based scientist recently suggested such a construction would make it impossible for players to raise above their heads in celebration, such would be the immense weight.

'According to my calculations, if it was solid all the way through, it would have somewhere between 70kg and 80kg of gold in it,' said British scientist Martyn Poliakoff recently. 'That is as much as the weight of quite a large adult, so it must be hollow.'

Hollow or not, the battle to lay hands on the trophy between Spain and the Netherlands at Soccer City is certain to be as intense as any other World Cup final.

Spain captain Iker Casillas will be hoping to become the first goalkeeper to raise the trophy since Dino Zoff did it for Italy in 1982, and his team will no doubt go into the final as favourites.

For coach Bert van Marwijk and his Dutch side to claim the trophy their compatriots so narrowly missed out on in 1974 and 1978, the side will have to play at a similar or even higher level to the one that saw them knock out Brazil in the quarter-finals.

Throughout the years, both nations have been able to mine rich seams of talent but today one side will truly be able to proclaim itself a golden generation.