Tragedy in South Africa

With Euro 2008 behind us, the focus of world soccer is now shifting to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And what people are seeing is not giving anyone a warm, comfortable glow.

A year ago, FIFA Chief Poobah Sepp Blatter famously declared that "only God can prevent South Africa from hosting" the finals in 2010. He didn't provide any particulars, but the assumption was that Blatter was referring to, say, an earthquake or a tsunami and not simply a fit of pique, where the Lord wakes up one morning in a bad mood and says "Screw it".

Be that as it may, whenever Blatter has been questioned on the subject of whether there is a "Plan B" in case SA can't pull it off, his standard reply has always been "South Africa is Plan A, Plan B and Plan C".

This response apparently became inoperative last week when Blatter finally admitted that FIFA does now have a real, actual, in place "Plan B" prepared in case they need to move the thing someplace else.

Which, of course, has always been true. FIFA is a multi-billion dollar corporation, and the World Cup is their biggest - almost their only - money-producing venture. To march blandly (and blindly) into the future without some kind of contingency planning would be little short of lunacy.

Nevertheless, the response from South Africa was immediate and vehement: Blatter was "selling them out" in and "outrageous" piece of "bad faith".

Local organizing chairman Dr. Danny Jordaan, who is half of one of the great ventriloquist acts of all time (you can barely see Sepp Blatter's lips move) assured everyone that Blatter was simply referring to the aforementioned Heavenly intervention; who can argue with the fact that, should the Supreme Deity decide to chop SA off from the continent and set it adrift that FIFA needs to have a backup plan?

This explanation has done little to quell local fears that FIFA is getting ready to cut bait on SA, although one SA media outlet is suggesting that Blatter is "just trying to scare us" into getting their act in gear, and posting that it's actually a good thing.

Others aren't so sure. The problems in South Africa are very real and, incredibly, getting worse.

It does now appear that all of the stadiums will be more or less completed by the time the tournament rolls around, although there will undoubtedly be a good deal of damp plaster and still-tacky paint.

Of more concern is whether those buildings will have electrical power in a country which is experiencing massive unemployment because major industries cannot get the power they need to run their plants and mines.

Jordaan assures us that every stadium will have it's own backup generator so that in case the national power grid goes down the matches can go on.

Which will be great until the fans have to find their way home in the dark through one of the worst crime-infested countries on Earth, where - anti-immigrant rioting and murders aside - foreign hotel guests are routinely dragged out of their rooms, taken to the basement, beaten and raped.

The government has assured everyone that - astonishingly - crime won't be a problem in SA in two years because they're going to increase the size of their police forces by "10% each year" between now and then.

Cynics are suggesting that making an inefficient, corrupt, outnumbered and scared-to-death police force a little bigger by adding thousands of barely-trained, inexperienced rookies isn't likely to do anything much beyond making the problems worse.

It certainly isn't going to come anywhere close to the massive, ruthlessly efficient security forces South Korea deployed, the kind of intensely trained, highly motivated professionals who made visitors to that country feel safer than they did back home.

And that's to say nothing of the still-missing transportation, communications and hotel space that an event like this demands. They simply don't exist and are so far behind that few beyond the simply delusional are suggesting that they'll be in place in less than two years.

And now, looming ever larger, is the increasingly out-of-control political and humanitarian crisis is neighboring Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe's thugs are ruthlessly stamping out any form of dissent and causing human suffering on a massive scale.

South Africa has an enormous ability to affect events there, and the international community is increasingly upset with President Mbeki's compliance with, even complicity in, the tragedy unfolding just across his border.

Voices are now being raised against the Mbeki government itself, suggesting that if they refuse to use their influence to try and force Mugabe to act like something other than a slobbering murderer, that SA does not deserve to conduct the World Cup.

Finally, there are increasing voices in South Africa itself who are seeing the enormous expenditures of desperately needed monies on white elephant stadiums in a country where people are suffering and dying due to lack of basic human services and wondering whether the whole thing was a mistake in the first place.

Opponents of this view argue that South Korea built a bunch of basically useless stadiums as well, a point which ignores the fact that SK is a booming, successful economy that cold well afford it. South Africa cannot.

All of which brings us back to Sepp Blatter, whose insistence on an "African" World Cup was a payback for the African votes which won his re-election, as well as what he sees as a down payment on the Nobel Peace Prize which he has squarely in his sights.

Blatter is caught between a rock and a very, very hard place: pull the WC and be called the worst kind of racist, anti-African liar. Let it go on in an atmosphere of chaos and risk presiding over the wort calamity ever to befall world sport.

Either way, Blatter will wait until a minute before midnight to make his decision, and if it's pulled at the very last second - and we're talking referees with whistles and national anthems here - then the only possible alternative will be a country that can literally flip the switch overnight and pull off an event of this size.

There's only one country on Earth that can do that, and it's the USA.