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05 June 2023

South Africa quietly marks 500 days to Football World Cup

South African labourer work in Nelspruit's new football stadium that will be used as one of the 10 stadiums across South Africa for the 2010 World Cup (AFP)

The countdown to Africa's first World Cup hits the 500-day mark next Tuesday, but you'd hardly know it from walking the streets of Johannesburg or South Africa's other host cities.

Construction of new stadiums and upgrades of existing ones are in full swing, along with a massive overhaul of the apartheid-era transport system that has turned swathes of the city into building zones.

But away from the skeletons of the stadiums rising up across the country, there's still little sign that one of the world's premier sporting events is arriving just next year.

The World Cup mascot, a green-haired leopard named Zakumi, has gone into hiding after making a splash with his debut on national television in September.

Even the Confederations Cup, seen as a dress rehearsal that opens here in less than six months, doens't quite show up yet on the national landscape.

Rich Mkhondo, spokesman for the local organising committee, said that's about to change, with the 500-day mark serving as a launch pad for promotions of the Confed Cup.

"We would begin earnestly to actually promote the World Cup when the Confeds Cup is finished," he told AFP.

Mayors of the four Confed Cup host cities will gather in Bloemfontein on Tuesday to unveil a campaign for the tournament that starts in June, he said.

What organisers have been doing is repeatedly reassuring naysayers who feared the country wasn't ready to stage a major global event, comforting South Africans that FIFA won't suddenly turn to a Plan B.

"We will be ready and Plan B is officially dead," Danny Jordaan, head of the local organising committee for the games, said in The Star newspaper earlier this month.

"We will prove to the world that we are ready to host the soccer festivals," he added.

The stadiums are largely on schedule, with new venues in Nelson Mandela Bay, Durban, Polokwane, Nelspruit and Soccer City in Johannesburg more than 60 percent complete and set to meet their October deadline, organisers say.

Green Point Stadium in Cape Town is also about half-way finished, while upgrades at other venues will be ready for the Confed Cup, they say.

Public interest is clearly strong, with nearly 40,000 people applying to become volunteers for the tournament -- 10 times the number required.

The lucky few chosen to participate begin their training next month, when World Cup tickets are also set to go on sale.

Some tickets have already been sold through tour packages which FIFA says have exceeded their targets, reaching 115 million dollars.

Concerns do remain, but organisers say South Africa is taking steps to address them.

"The most challenging key areas are transportation, accommodation and security, but the plans and efforts made in those crucial areas by the responsible authorities are re-assuring," FIFA said in comments emailed to AFP.

Police are recruiting 55,000 new officers, bringing up forces to 190,000 in 2009, in a bid to rein in the alarming crime rate in a country where an average of 50 people die violently every day.

Public transport is being built almost from scratch with a one billion euro (1.3 billion dollar) scheme for a rail link between Johannesburg's main business district and the airport, along with special bus lanes and shiny new vehicles for the nine host cities.

FIFA also said it's working with tourism officials to ensure that 55,000 rooms are available each night during the World Cup, a goal it plans to meet by tapping hotels, guesthouses and even timeshares.

Thabani Khumalo, managing director of Think Tank Marketing Services, had criticised organisers last year for being too slow with their promotional efforts. He still believes that more needs to be done, but said he believed the gaems would revitalise South Africa.

"The event will revive the celebration atmosphere and renew the spirit of togetherness that South Africans and the world communities experienced when apartheid was overthrown by democracy in 1994," Khumalo said.