IE Focus | By Gildo Seisdedos, Professor at IE Business School

South Africa’s much-desired World Cup could turn into a nightmare if global coverage exposes the country’s weakest points.This year the World Cup will be held in Africa. For the first time in history, the world’s most coveted sporting event after the Olympics has gone to the African continent. Beyond the strong symbolism of the pictures of Nelson Mandela holding the trophy and the impressive athletic progress made by African soccer, an unanswered question remains: was it a good idea to take soccer so far away from its origins?

Events as drivers for territorial transformation
We live in times when everyone wants a piece of the action where sporting events are concerned. Why? We might have to look for the root of this growing demand in what some have called the “Barcelona effect”. An industrial city in decline, positioned rather poorly within the regional hierarchy, manages to turn itself into a world-class city for tourism and services thanks to the impact on its brand made by an ambitious urban redevelopment project that used the Olympics as a driver and a global showcase. What mechanisms lay behind this magic transformation? Big events are without a doubt an excellent opportunity to tackle a region’s lack of certain facilities or infrastructure, both of which can benefit from the impact of the magic and far-reaching legacy of a major sporting event.Yet the main benefits seem to have a more subtle, emotional, or postmodern origin. The Olympics’ great accomplishment was to place Barcelona on a global map. The German “fanfests”, for example, played a crucial role in the Soccer World Cup of 2006. These free outdoor events that broadcasted the games to the public created a party-like atmosphere that was one of the most important triumphs of the tournament’s organization, one that forever changed our image of Germany as a boring and serious country. In fact, the Organizing Committee of the 2010 Soccer World Cup has announced that it plans to replicate the experience.

The motive behind the Olympics in Tokyo `64, Seoul `88 and Beijing `08 was to set a stage on which to demonstrate to the world the respective countries’ new image. The same could be said, albeit with a more sinister tone, of the World Cup in Argentina in `78.

The exponential increase of a region’s media presence through the extensive coverage of a mega-event and the capacity to project a fresh, modern, and even reinvented image has the intended “push” effect: placing the country on a steeper growth curve which attracts talent, investors and visitors.

Will it work for Africa?
Regions (all of us, actually) have a strong tendency to imitate competitive strategies. If it worked for the other guy, we should try the same—it will surely work for us as well. But…that’s not always the case.

The Athens Olympics almost left the country bankrupt and our cities see many “stellar” projects which turn into white elephants: failed projects that didn’t have the push effect and only caused a waste of resources on an illusion. Excessive cultural and athletic equipment and events without global repercussion are put together as a response to the pressure to mechanically repeat a formula that worked for others. We think we need a Ghery, Olympic Games, a Guggenheim, a subway or a street car for our region to move up in the world.

South Africa’s record with regards to the World Cup is not great. Africa has a long history of getting too close to the edge by implementing formulas that had positive results in entirely different and distant scenarios. Plus, there have been too many doubts too late in the process concerning South Africa’s organizational capacities: It was only in June 2008 that FIFA’s president Joseph Blatter confessed to having a “Plan B” in case the African nation experienced problems with organization.

The gamble is very risky indeed. The World Cup will probably be the occasion for the most positive aspects of South Africa to shine on a global stage and for a positive dynamic of African self-esteem to be transmitted around the world. But, and I hope I’m wrong, I’m afraid we’ll also get to witness how globalization uncovers the continent’s crude reality.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.