I love soccer, or the original football. As a child, baseball was king, but soccer was right behind as crown prince. In fact, long after my baseball skills had proven insufficient, and my dream of becoming the next Kirby Puckett (former center fielder of the Minnesota Twins) had disappeared, I was still blocking opportunistic opponents, and sometimes getting yellow cards in the process. Yes, I wasn’t the cleanest player on the field, but in a game where one goal is usually the difference, taking a penalty was always preferable to letting someone have a free shot at your goalie.
As I reflect on the just-opened World Cup in South Africa, it seems that the spirit with which I played the game has now, in its own curious way, impacted how I view these most important of soccer matches.
Reading about all the excitement amongst South Africans, and seeing the massive stadium they’ve built, along with all the other infrastructure to support the thousands of tourists who are now in the country, I can’t help but wonder: is this just another example of “trickle-down economics”?
Those of us who lived in the United States during the 198’s heard a hell of a lot about the supposed wonders of this theory from our actor turned politician President, Ronald Reagan.
Put money into the hands of the corporations and they will invest in our communities. Give tax breaks to the rich and they will support the rest of us. Cut social welfare programs, and help people get jobs, and you will have a more thriving economy and better nation.
All of this is a nice sounding story, but the actual experience for those of us in the bottom 50% of the economic scale was like having a dump truck drop a load of shit at your front door with the morning paper. For my family, and so many others, it seemed like we were always either shoveling out from under a pile of bills, or taking a breather knowing the next round was soon on its way.
So I find myself feeling defensive, in a soccer kind of way, about the wild claims some are making about the World Cup’s potential impact on South Africa. Nearly five million South Africans are infected with HIV/AIDS. South Africa’s unemployment rate is over 23%. And despite the improvements under post-apartheid governments, the average black family still brings in five to six times less income than the average white family.
In addition, there are nearly five million refugees and undocumented people from neighboring nations like Zimbabwe who are living on the fringes, and sometimes competing with native South Africans for scarce job opportunities.
When I think about the World Cup, these are the first people who come to mind. What impact will the games have on their lives? Will they receive any tangible benefits or will it be a month of euphoria followed by a return to the daily struggles to get by?
Making rich people richer is as easy as kicking a soccer ball out of bounds. But actually using an opportunity like the World Cup to make sure most of the people in a society benefit from it requires the patience, sharing, coordinating, and persistence that scoring a goal in soccer demands. You can’t just plunk a new stadium down, build some new roads, hotels, and restaurants, and then expect that the tourist money will get spread around to all those who live there.
I don’t know everything that South Africa has done in preparation for these games, but a few stories I have heard about the neighborhoods surrounding the central stadium don’t make me feel too optimistic. For one thing, many of the jobs that arrived because of the World Cup are temporary in nature: construction work, stadium employment, and other work directly related to the games themselves. What happens when the Cup is over and all the tourists have gone?
Every four years, those of us Americans who love the game get excited. We soccer fans live in relative obscurity amongst rabid NFL fans who think their game is the only “football,” and this is our time to shine. I’ve never been patriotic at all, but I love an underdog, and the U.S. soccer team is always an underdog. So, I will be watching and cheering them on. And at the same time, I will have mixed feelings about it all, wondering what, in the end, it will all mean for the millions of South Africans who are dreaming for better lives and are hoping that the Cup is their ticket to them.
“Fireworks light the sky at the end of the FIFA World Cup Kick-off Concert at the Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg on June 10, 2010.” Courtesy of www.bollypatrika.com
“Ronald Reagan” Public Domain