South Africa's stadiums amaze but court controversy

JOHANNESBURG Mon Jul 12, 2010 5:42pm IST

Spain's players celebrate after the final whistle at their 2010 World Cup final soccer match against Netherlands at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg July 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Spain's players celebrate after the final whistle at their 2010 World Cup final soccer match against Netherlands at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg July 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's World Cup stadiums have stunned the globe's largest sporting audience with audacious style although critics say a developing country can ill afford such extravagance and some will be white elephants.

When South Africa won the right to stage the tournament six years ago, the stadium budget was 3 billion rand ($396 million). After including two more arenas and some dazzling structural additions, that figure is now widely put at about 18 billion.

Of the 10 stadiums, five are brand new and one, the flagship Soccer City in Johannesburg, was completely revamped.

Soccer City and the five new stadiums are all architecturally impressive and stand comparison with any venue in the world. There is no doubt the architects achieved their aim of impressing a global audience.

"People are sitting in Denmark and France and the UK saying, 'That stadium looks a hell of a lot better than anything we've got here, and it looks like it works'," said John Mackie, head of African investments at Stanlib asset management company.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter lavished praise on the stadiums, last week, saying they were better than those in Europe.

"These stadiums are jewels from the architectural point of view. They are really, really good stadiums," he said.

South Africa is the continent's biggest economy but the question is whether it could afford so much when it has an army of poor and huge crime problems fuelled by some of the world's greatest wealth disparities, not to mention an HIV pandemic.

"You see how much we have spent on building stadiums but, after the World Cup, what are we going to benefit? There are still so many problems, no jobs, people living in shacks," said Siyabonga Zulu, 35, an unemployed man in Soweto township.

MONEY DIVERTED

"When you build enormous stadia you are shifting those resources... from building schools and hospitals and then you have these huge structures standing empty," the late anti-apartheid campaigner Dennis Brutus said last year.

But there is another side to the argument, which sees the stadiums as much more than mere sporting venues.

Their supporters view the arenas as a way to reverse images of pestilence and war that still blight the continent and to affirm the potential of a young, democratic nation so often beset by self doubt.

The new stadiums certainly go beyond what is strictly necessary to host a match.

From the cavernous Soccer City, shaped like a giant African calabash or bowl, to the soaring arch and sky train over Durban's ocean-side venue, to Cape Town's majestic arena backed by Table Mountain and Port Elizabeth's petal-shrouded bowl, they are magnificent.

There is a more difficult question for organisers and that is what will happen to the stadiums after the fans have all gone home and whether they were built in the right place.

There was controversy in Cape Town, for example, at the decision to build the graceful bath-shaped stadium in the affluent tourist district of the city, apparently because of FIFA's insistence on a spectacular location.

The previous plan was to upgrade the existing Athlone stadium in the poor Cape Flats area, thus attracting more infrastructure spending there.

WHITE ELEPHANTS?

Most controversial are the small but still imaginatively designed arenas in the northern cities of Nelspruit and Polokwane, with no rugby or soccer team within hundreds of km.

Local officials say there are management plans for all the stadiums and those two will host concerts, religious meetings and the like as well as sport.

But while most experts believe Durban, Cape Town and Soccer City have a good chance of a profitable future in popular tourist cities with large populations, Nelspruit, Polokwane and possibly Port Elizabeth will struggle to make money.

Soccer City will host a Tri-Nations rugby match next month between South Africa and New Zealand and future local games -- with the additional social benefit of drawing white rugby fans into Soweto township and boosting racial reconciliation.

Durban, whose arch-spanned stadium may be the most breathtaking, is part of a large sporting precinct in a general city beautification project unashamedly tilting at the 2020 or 2024 Olympics.

Supporters of the grandiose stadiums say they are an essential part of one of the World Cup's biggest benefits, the rebranding of South Africa for longer-term investment that will eventually repay the costs.

"With all the negative things that are taking place in Africa, this is a superb moment for us. If we are going to have white elephants, so be it," said Nobel peace prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Ken Ferris)

(For more news on Reuters India, click in.reuters.com)

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