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Let the games begin

TIME heals all pain.
You probably have to be a South African football fan to fully understate the meaning of this statement in the context of the Fifa World Cup.

A decade has passed since it was decided — by the unlikeliest hand of an aging New Zealander — that the 2006 World Cup would be staged in Germany and not in South Africa, many neutrals’ favourite to host international sports’ greatest showpiece.

Charlie Dempsey, a member of the Fifa executive, famously abstained from the final round of voting in July 2000 in Zurich, Switzerland. Dempsey had been instructed by his region, the Oceania Football Confederation, to back South Africa’s bid, but did not cast his vote. That gave the tournament to Germany by 12 votes to 11.

The vote sparked off fierce protests and sharp criticism across the Africa continent from fans who felt there had been something underhand to foil the “Dark Continent’s” maiden World Cup.

Dempsey’s actions were condemned in such strong terms as “racist” and “diabolical”.
That the destiny of the world’s biggest single-sport event was thrust in the hands of a man from a country where rugby  is the main sport was a cause for great anguish and heartbreak to many South Africans.

Fast-forward to 2010, and all that has changed.
Charlie died two years ago after a short-illness, aged 86. He quietly passed on four years after South Africa had been awarded the right to host the 2010 World Cup, shrugging off the challenge of two other African countries following a rotational system that has since been abandoned.

As the remains of this Scottish-born former builder lie somewhere in his adopted country, Dempsey can rest in peace in the knowledge that his death came long after the heartbreak he inflicted was forgotten, overtaken by events.

South Africa is just hours away from a glittering opening ceremony to unveil what could turn out to be the best football World Cup to date.

“South Africa’s vote man” — as Dempsey was referred to as by the media — played a crucial role in that, in his own indirect way. Whatever his motives were 10 years ago when he refused to vote, he should be remembered as a man who contributed to the staging of a memorable World Cup in 2010.

Perhaps back in 2006 South Africa was not ready to host the kind of jamboree we are about to witness in the next 31 days. Weighed down by a serious crime rate, race problems, violent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals among other social vices, South Africa was not a country at peace with itself.

It is by no means perfect now, but wherever you go, huge transformation can be seen in the Rainbow Nation. It’s a different country. Race relations have improved, new stadiums have been built and old ones renovated, while the capacity of black citizens has been enhanced to an extent.

The World Cup fever has been mounting all the time and the heavy presence of international media has obviously helped to hype the event. The International Broadcasting Centre, adjacent the Soccer City stadium here in Jo’burg, is a hive of activity and resembles a small CBD.

The highest number of fan arrivals was recorded this week. On Tuesday, OR Tambo
International Airport had a carnival setting as fans, mainly from Europe and South America, sang and danced at the airport upon arrival.

Locals, buoyed by Bafana Bafana’s impressive form ahead of the World Cup, joined in the fun. The vuvuzela blared loudly from the airport into the different districts of this expansive city. Cars draped in the South African flag, streets lined with flags of participating countries and a general feel-good atmosphere; South Africa truly cannot wait to show the world what it’s made of.
Even Dempsey would have been impressed.

Enock Muchinjo in Johannesburg

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