After 24 years of fancy digs, the World Cup is finally going home to the comforting arms of the Third World. In 2006, I went to the last World Cup in Germany and, as expected, the event was run with mesmerizing Teutonic efficiency and upheld the highest European standards (and prices). The hotels were superb, the fan centers at each venue were well organized, roads between cities were clearly marked and looked after, the eats were solid and readily available, stadiums top notch, security was air tight. The massive, month-long event went off without a hitch. The previous World Cup, co-hosted by Japan and Korea, was a similiarly well executed affair. Previous to that, France hosted with Gallic flourish and comfort, prior to that the United States did a stand up job, and before that in 1990 it was tourist-friendly Italy. In fact you have to go back to Mexico in 1986 to find a World Cup held in a Third World country (though with the global meltdown and California now issuing IOU´s you can make the case that those first world vs third world distinctions are diminishing!) Next year, however marks a return to the Third World, with South Africa set to host beginning June 11, 2010.
Just how third world is South Africa? Well, it´s not a shabby place to visit at all (I´m told), but it does possess many of the fundamental social and economic blights befitting a third world country (or developing nation, as it´s fashionable to call the third world these days). Rampant disease, indigent poverty, extreme wealth disparity, mega slums, acute violent crime (rape is more common among young women than literacy, for example), lack of infrastructure, etc. Which will certainly make things eye-opening for fans who´ll be essentially relocating to South Africa for a month. This means potential hospital visits, dealing with the local authorities, encountering crime, having large swaths of certain cities off limits for fear of crime. Not to sound pessimistic, but it´s unlikely to go off without a hitch. This World Cup will be an imperfect experience. If nothing else than for the simple reason that the beautiful game, which has gone very Hollywood of late with trillion dollar transfer fees and , will regain its feet of mud. This will not be a perfect world cup, but it will definitely be a World Cup closer to its roots.
And that´s precisely why South Africa is, in a sense, an ideal place to host the world cup. Soccer is the definitive poor person´s game. It can be played with a makeshift ball (like a balled up sock) and literally nothing else. You don´t need a hoop, a glove or a pool; just your feet plus some relatively horizontal ground and a few other kids. In large measure, that´s been the key to its astounding success as a sport, and why the British pastime skyrocketed in popularity in the poorer parts of the globe.