100 days to World Cup, South Africa still wooing fans

JOHANNESBURG: Landmark new stadiums and gleaming modern airports are already redefining South Africa's cities, but 100 days before the World Cup the nation is still sprucing up its image to woo international fans.

"All the bricks and mortar are in now in place" for the June 11 to July 11 tournament, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe said in February.

But persistent fears about crime and sky-high prices have put off some would-be visitors, with many overseas fans still recovering from the shock of the global recession.

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said in Zurich last week that 2.1 of the 2.9 million tickets have already been sold, but that fewer foreign fans are now expected.

"We had expected 400,000-500,000, it will be less. How much less? I have no idea," Valcke said.

South Africa has poured 33 billion rand (3.9 billion dollars, 3.2 billion euros) into preparations for the tournament.

Major upgrades to airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Bloemfontein are complete, while Dubran's new airport is set to open in May.

Johannesburg's Soccer City, venue of the opening and final matches, is the only one that has yet to host to a trial match, but final touches on the stadium should be done next month.

Meanwhile, organisers have launched a marketing blitz to urge South Africans to rally behind the tournament and national team.

Billboards and TV ads proclaim the World Cup is "Ayoba!" -- or cool -- while locals are also being urged to wear football jerseys on Fridays and to learn the tournament's official "Diski" dance.

Last week President Jacob Zuma in his state of the nation address urged locals to buy more tickets and to support the games to honour former president Nelson Mandela, who lobbied to bring the World Cup here.

"Mandela was central in assisting the country to win the rights to host this great event. "We therefore have to make the World Cup a huge success in his honour," said Zuma.

"The infrastructure, security and logistics arrangements are in place to ensure a successful tournament."

South Africans seem to have heeded the call, snapping up more than half the tickets sold so far.

Despite hosting a successful Confederations Cup in June and World Cup draw in December, security fears remain as South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with an average of 50 murders reported each day.

Those fears were fueled by the deadly attack on Togo's football team in Angola during the Africa Cup of Nations in January.

South African and FIFA officials quickly pointed out that their country is a stable democracy while Angola is still emerging from decades of civil war.

"Don't kill the World Cup before it starts, give South Africa a chance. It's unfair and it's really sad," Valcke said at the time.

"Give South Africa a chance to organise a great World Cup," he said, accusing European media of alarmist reporting on the country.

A British company selling stab-proof vests with team emblems also came under fire from government and organisers for sowing fear.

South Africa has spent more than 2.4 billion rand on security, recruiting 41,000 additional police and buying hi-tech equipment for the competition.

Tourism officials still worry about skyrocketing prices for transport and lodging. Anti-trust authorities have announced a probe into possible price-fixing by domestic airlines.

But South Africans are overall positive about the tournament, which they believe will create jobs and boost tourism while promoting the country's image overseas, according to the survey conducted for FIFA.

Among the concerns for the tournament, 70 percent of respondents said they were afraid inflation would spike because of the tournament.

The Treasury says the games are expected to boost economic growth by half a point this year.