JOHANNESBURG — The World Cup begins here Friday with excitement at so elevated a level that even many of the unhappy are happy.
Tshepo Makwala, a laborer, has no job, no prospects and, worst of all, no ticket to any of the 64 games. Still, it thrills him that soccer’s biggest event is for the first time taking place in Africa.
"This isn’t one for the Guinness Book of Records; it’s for the Guinness Book of Miracles," he said.
Isaac Vitalis manages the G&G Guest House near Ellis Park, a World Cup stadium. He oversaw $40,000 in renovations only to discover that the location falls within a new security zone where no traffic is allowed. His inn is empty.
"My country is still hosting the beautiful game," he nevertheless insisted, "and it will be a beautiful experience."
The World Cup is the most-watched event on Earth, and South Africa is eager to be seen, especially if the cameras ignore the shacks of the poor and focus instead on the beautiful new stadiums, the panoramic view from Cape Town’s Table Mountain and the wild animals flourishing in the bush.
Much is expected from the monthlong tournament: global recognition for an international up-and-comer; a pie in the face for pessimists who believed that the stadiums would never be completed on time; a jolt of good feeling in a nation with a dangerously dwindled supply of inspiration.
Sixteen years ago, as Nelson Mandela took the presidential oath and apartheid slipped further into ignominy, he declared that South Africa was no longer "the skunk of the world" but rather a "rainbow nation" where people of all colors could live in harmony. A year later, he urged his countrymen — black and white — to support their national rugby team, the sports obsession of the nation’s Afrikaner population. The squad won the world championship, a feel-good story retold last year in the movie "Invictus."
South Africans now hope for a similar transcendent moment, this time from soccer, the favorite sport of the nation’s blacks. People here may not expect their country to win the tournament, but they believe it will throw a winning party.
To provide the potent magic, Mandela will make an appearance at Friday’s opening match, South Africa versus Mexico.
"We were once the rainbow nation, the world’s greatest fairy tale, and we want to be so again," the writer Mark Gevisser said. "We need the world to love us again, sometimes it seems, before we can love ourselves."
There are plenty of World Cup naysayers, of course — and they have plenty to say nay about. The host’s ledger book does not look so hot: about $5.5 billion spent on stadiums and infrastructure with the immediate expectation of maybe $1.7 billion in return, according to Gillian Saunders, who researched the economic impact for the accounting firm Grant Thornton.
But she hastens to add that much of the infrastructure, especially for transportation, would have been needed anyway, and while one can add up outgo and income, it is impossible to put a value on the joy and self-esteem of a nation — all those people blowing vuvuzelas, wearing funny hats and flying the flag.
Even so, the critics wince and grumble, calling the World Cup an unaffordable vanity project. To them, South Africa was suckered into a rotten deal with international soccer’s governing body, the high-rolling FIFA.
In Cape Town, for example, FIFA insisted on a new stadium instead of an upgrade to an existing one. The sweetener for the city was a few extra games, including a semifinal. While the result is an arena that is an architectural showpiece near the waterfront, it comes at an extra cost of about $400 million.
An investigation sponsored by the Institute for Security Studies, a South African organization, claims the extravagance was money enough to build 60,000 low-cost houses for the benefit of 250,000 people.
South Africa, with a population of 49 million, has the continent’s largest economy, which would demand bigger bragging rights if the wealth — by the measure of some researchers — was not the most unequally distributed in the world. The soccer tournament has led to an estimated 174,000 new jobs, but it is unclear how many of these will outlive the year.
President Jacob Zuma has called the World Cup the "greatest marketing opportunity of our time," endorsing the view that the coming weeks will serve as an unforgettable advertisement for a business-friendly, competently run democracy. But there are always risks to inviting outsiders into one’s home, particularly if the place is prone to crime, labor strikes and mini-rebellions in the townships over the lack of street lights, piped water and toilets.
"If things go well, the psychic and symbolic boost will be substantial," said Achille Mbembe, a political scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "If things go wrong, that would be a very sad story."
South Africa is rightfully notorious for crime, and officials have tried to allay the fears of foreign fans by deploying 41,000 police officers for World Cup security and opening 56 special courts to quickly try the accused.
More than 40 heads of state are expected to attend the tournament. The national police commissioner, Bheki Cele, said jokingly, "Our famous prayer is the Americans don’t make the second round." Attendance by President Barack Obama would complicate his life.
Whatever the precautions, they are unlikely to satisfy the British tabloids. "World Cup Fans Face Bloodbath" was one front-page headline in April. Last week, another tabloid warned that the British team’s base camp was surrounded by killer pythons, spitting cobras, puff adders and black mambas that, it claimed, carried enough venom to kill two soccer squads with a single bite.
AIDS is another concern. South Africa has 5.7 million HIV-positive people, more than any other country. Condoms are being placed in rooms by some hotel chains, bedtime giveaways like mints on a pillow. AIDS groups want them distributed at stadiums as well, but FIFA, which allows only merchandise provided by an official sponsor, has said no.
And, as with most other things, FIFA has prevailed.
"So now we begin our international spectacle, and we’ll see where it takes us," said Njabulo S. Ndebele, one of the nation’s best-known writers and educators. "To be honest, I wasn’t particularly in favor of this. We could have spent the money on something more sustainable than a World Cup."
And yet he, too, admits to being excited. He said he would be at Friday’s game.