University of Texas of the Permian Basin
The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations: The 2010 World Cup and Nation Building in South Africa
Readers of the British tabloids in the days, weeks, months, and years leading up to 2010’s World Cup knew that anyone foolish enough to visit South Africa for the world’s largest sporting event was taking their life into their hands. Orgies of violence, including rape and carjackings; infestations of HIV-AIDS; undeveloped infrastructure and inept public servants; witch doctors at the games and lions in the streets: These were the things that awaited the British tourist who dared brave Africa’s first attempt to host the World Cup. The Daily Star prophesied a “machete race war.” Naysayers, including many within FIFA, continually harped on “Plan B” for when South Africa proved unequal to the challenge of hosting the event.
If one read the South African newspapers or watched South African television or followed South African social media in the days and weeks of the World Cup they knew that South Africa had hosted the Greatest Event Ever. That South Africa had shined. By the end of the tournament FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke was able to proclaim that perhaps South Africa might become “Plan B” for future Cups. Supporters embraced another “Rainbow Nation Miracle.” And it seemed that most fans wanted to believe it. The tabloids, it was clear, were wrong.
So just how should we assess South Africa’s World Cup? It is clear that the pre-tournament naysayers, who included not only the British tabloids but also a number of far less shrill observers, including not a few South Africans, were wrong.
It is possible to recognize the germs of truth in the tabloid fever dreams about what would happen in South Africa without succumbing to their inherent Afro-pessimism which as often as not was driven by hoary Dark Continent clichés of Africa (and more than a little bit of racism, or at least racialism). Nonetheless it seems fair to agree with British journalist David Smith’s observation at the end of the World Cup that “low expectations were the hosts’ greatest gift.” This paper will investigate the success or failure of the World Cup through the lens of nation building.