Hmmm – I know, it seems a bit of a stretch. Soccer and investment risk? Unlikely. Must be a soccer obsessed blogger looking for an excuse to write about last night’s game.

Well, this “political risk and financial market” blogger is not soccer obsessed, but after last night’s game his soccer appreciation senses are …. aroused? He feels ready to make sweeping generalisations about soccer as a metaphor for life.

Bafana Bafana lost to Brazil. Ellis Park was stunned into silence after the 88th minute goal smashed into the back of the South Africans’ net. The silence was all the more deafening at having cut short the cacophony of vuvuzelas and the cheering of the almost hysterically excited crowd.

The cameras dwelt on hundreds of faces of grown men with tears streaming, unchecked, from their eyes.

The overwhelming (over-the-top?) grief did not detract from the deeper sense of victory. The South Africans had held the line against the exceptional Brazilian team for most of the game. And for most of that game it was the South Africans who looked more likely to score – in my famously humble soccering opinion.

After years of performances that were something of a national embarrassment Bafana Bafana is back. All the commentary that has followed the game has heaped praise on the South Africans. The underlying achievement is important for reasons way beyond the soccer field.

From the moment South Africa was awarded the 2010 Fifa World Cup in Zurich on May 15 in 2004, South African’s- and many of the country’s external critics – have seemed to invest the cup with the power of prophecy and prediction – for the country and the continent.

In a note to the financial markets in 2006, entitled “The Sum of all Fears”, I wrote:

The 2010 soccer World Cup seems to have taken on the peculiar status as a proxy for South Africa’s future survival. Is the country such a basket case that the opening ceremony is going to be held in Sydney?

The fact that 2010 is having to carry South Africans’ existential anxiety about themselves and the world’s anxiety about Africa is hardly surprising.

Germany just showed itself and the world that it could combine superb organisation with a degree of creative flair. The world sat back and marvelled, often, and bizarrely, at the fact that German’s could have a good time – in an orderly sort of way. 

For South Africa the World Cup is proving nail biting and grounds for defensiveness, in equal measure. The worries about hosting the World Cup are eerily close to some real worries about South Africa, per se.

 

 The concerns have not changed much:

  • Can the country protect players and spectators from crime?
  • Can the country build and renovate the required ‘stadia’ (the silly plural of stadium) to adequate standards and on time?
  • Can the country solve its urban infrastructure problems, particularly as these relate to accommodation and, more importantly, to transport – the getting of players and spectators safely and efficiently into the country and from hotels to games and from city to city?
  • Does the country have the capacity to bring communications facilities up to the exacting standards required by Fifa?
  • Are we going to run out of skills – project managers, engineers, planners, every kind of artisan imaginable?
  • Does South Africa have the capacity to enforce the intellectual and advertising exclusivities required by Fifa?

But what has changed is the final – and deepest –  concern I expressed then:

  • Can South Africa field a soccer team that will not be humiliated on home turf?

That last concern was profoundly addressed and put to bed last night. We held the best team in the world until the nail-biting last few minutes. We did that when everyone in the world thought we were no-hopers. If we can do that, we can do anything!

I know that is not an argument. Your country can have a great football team and still be a rubbish investment destination. (Look at … Mexico? No, Columbia …. hmm, maybe I have discovered a new investment strategy. Brazil and Spain here my spare R17.85 comes ….. Look out! – Nic) 

 

On any given day, global sports-news (and news news) organisations comb through information about the ballooning cost of the stadium upgrade and building programme; about Sepp Blatter’s aside comments on vuvuzelas; Danny Jordaan’s shifting fortunes; hotel security and the Bus Rapid Transit standoff with the scary taxi operators.

But let’s be clear:  the challenges facing South Africa are infinitely more complex than organising even a global event of the scale of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. South Africa is well on track with all the major technological and infrastructural issues relating to the World Cup in 2010 and I suspect that national pride and prejudice will cause South Africans from every walk of life to be on their very best behaviour during these finals.

We have seen that it is impossible to protect players and spectators from every predator within South Africa’s borders – especially if such predators have been invited into the hotel room for a bit of slap and tickle by the soon-to-be-victimised visitor.

The 2010 world cup has given focus to urban planning and infrastructure rollout. It has been a useful motivator and self-measure of progress.

And as I said in 2006:

 But when the tents, banners and flags have all packed up and the Sepp Blatter circus has moved on, coffers bulging with cash, South Africa will still face its fundamental challenges, which can mostly be tracked back to GDP growth, productivity, unemployment, poverty and inequality (with a racial overlay). 

The difference between then and now is the secret shame we felt about Bafana Bafana. How could we host this competition; how could we lift our ‘national game’ if we couldn’t lift our soccer game? Well today Bafana Bafana are heroes. The South African media – and to some extent global news coverage – is investing this sports team with ideas like “excellence”, “hard work”, “non-racialism”, “fighting against adversity” and ‘turning difficult situations around”. Now I am not a management guru, but I am quite certain that that has a monetary value, that it improves the South African investment case.

So, like I said in 2006, but with more verve and gusto: “Go long the Soccer World Cup, South Africa 2010”! But to add for now: Go long Bafana Bafana!

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