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Subdued Excitement as S. Africa Hosts Africa Cup of Nations

South Africa's Kagisho Dkgacoi (L) is challenged by Algeria's Adlane Guedioura during their international friendly soccer match in Soweto, January 12, 2013, in preparation for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
South Africa's Kagisho Dkgacoi (L) is challenged by Algeria's Adlane Guedioura during their international friendly soccer match in Soweto, January 12, 2013, in preparation for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Anita Powell
South Africa is hosting this year’s Africa Cup of Nations football (soccer) tournament, but you would not know it to look around Johannesburg, which is the site of the opening match and the final. It is a far cry from the mania that washed over South Africa when the nation hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010. But officials say the excitement will build slowly, and fans will come around.

“It’s here, can you feel it?” was the question heard across South Africa when the nation hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

But as South Africa kicks off the Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON, the answer is, not really.

The tournament begins Saturday with a match between South Africa and Cape Verde. That match is sold out, but ticket sales for the other matches have been sluggish and have fallen short of the half-million target, with just 400,000 tickets sold.

It is, to be fair, a much smaller tournament than the World Cup, which cost more than $3 billion.  AFCON CEO Mvuzo Mbebe said he estimates the African tournament’s cost topped out at just over $100 million.

He says organizers expect as many as 40,000 fans from other African nations, plus some 200,000 South African fans. The national team, Bafana Bafana, is playing this year as a host nation after failing to qualify for the last two tournaments.

Mbebe says he expects the tournament to be a success, but he still expects some setbacks.

“It happens at the World Cup. There will be games where it’s difficult to fill the stadium. But I think the majority of games in this instance, whether Bafana Bafana is playing or not, we are going to get," said Mbebe. "I can tell you now, that in our projections, when games are being played in Mbombela, that stadium is going to be full and Bafana Bafana is not going to be there. Our projection is that when Ghana plays in Nelson Mandela Bay, we’ll get 40 to 50 percent of the stadium full. I think we are going to start getting those numbers. So I don’t think we are really going to have truly, truly empty stadiums except one or two games.”

Mbebe acknowledged that South Africa has not had much time to prepare for the event, especially since the nation was not the first choice. The original host, Libya, had a revolution in 2011 and handed off their hosting duties.

But South African sports minister Fikile Mbalula says he thinks the nation can pull off a great tournament on a short deadline.

“South Africa’s got a history to host tournaments in a short period of time," said Mbalula. "We hosted [the Indian Premier League cricket tournament] here, the biggest showpiece, in a very short space of time, well attended and all of that, in a very short space of time, we didn’t have problems. So we’ve got history, because we’re confident that our people love football and these things that we bring them, they only see them from afar, and once they are here people will grab them with both opportunities. So we are quite confident that we will basically do well.”

For football (soccer) lovers, this tournament promises some delights. It is going to be the final nation’s cup appearance for former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast. It is also the debut appearance for the team from tiny Cape Verde.

VOA spoke to some half-a-dozen men on the streets of Johannesburg, and none said they had tickets. All said they would try to get them, and that they were supporting Bafana Bafana. 

Twenty-five-year-old Gustaph Tshepo also says he wants his home team to win, but he is putting his money on Nigeria taking the title. He says he will try to go to a match if he can, but lamented that the tournament is not as well publicized as the World Cup was.

"Like, in 2010, there was posters, everything, everything. But now, African Cup of Nations, I don’t know…  Africans, I’m not sure we have the right marketing points of views, I’m not sure if there’s a problem or what. But I think many people don’t know about the African Cup of Nations," said Tshepo.

But organizers say the enthusiasm will build slowly, and that by the end, we will all be feeling it.

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