As South Africa enters its last week of hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, the country’s head of state, President Jacob Zuma believes the “Rainbow Nation” has exceeded expectations with its organisation of the tournament. In what has been the proudest moment in Africa's sporting history, the South Africa president believes the successful hosting of the event has reaffirmed that FIFA’s trust in Africa was not misplaced.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com at his Presidential Residence in Pretoria, President Zuma said he believes that the legacy of this FIFA World Cup will benefit the African continent for decades.
FIFA: Mr President, first of all thank you for your time. With only a week left in this 2010 FIFA World Cup, what are your impressions so far of the tournament?
President Zuma: I think the tournament is going extremely well and we are very happy, South Africans are happy. You just have to see the reaction of the people at all the matches. I must also say that the international community is very happy about this tournament. I had an opportunity to be in Toronto at the G8 meeting and the excitement I saw from other heads of state was unbelievable. You could have seen the emotions. This has been, undoubtedly a very successful tournament. I think we have proved that not only South Africa, but Africa is capable of hosting any major event.
When you were in Robben Island, did you ever imagine that South Africa would host an event of this magnitude and you would oversee that period?
Not at all, I don’t think any of us imagined that. As you might recall, at that time, we were campaigning for the isolation of apartheid South Africa. And, when FIFA took a decision to ban South Africa, it was a significant step. We only dreamt that one day, a free and equal South Africa would participate at international competitions. We never thought that South Africa, so early on, would host a World Cup. In any case, when I was in Robben Island I never thought I would be president. It is indeed a humbling experience if you take that into account.
How important was it for South Africa to succeed at this FIFA World Cup following the doubts and scepticism that the country had been the subject of in some circles?
I think it was very important for us to succeed. But you must remember that, as South Africans, we pride ourselves on the fact that we always rise up to any challenge. As a matter of fact, nobody believed that we would have a smooth transition from apartheid and we did it. As you know, a FIFA World Cup has never been hosted in Africa. When South Africa first declared its intentions to host the World Cup, some people said ‘what is this country from Africa thinking’. Yes, we lost the first time (to Germany), but we knew that we would do it next time. That is what defines us as a country – our attitude and the belief that nothing is impossible. We knew we deserved it, but some continued to say, ‘impossible, they won’t be able to organise it’ and they talked about a ‘Plan B’. When we completed the stadiums, people started to talk about security and other issues, but we have had a great tournament. And today, a lot of people who are honest enough have come out and said ‘we confess, we were wrong about your country’.
Talking about the significance of the World Cup. We know that this tournament was also earmarked as an opportunity for nation building for this young democracy. Do you think that has been achieved?
Absolutely, beyond expectations. This has been an important component for our nation building. It is for the first time in South Africa that we have seen this Rainbow Nation really coming together in a manner we have not witnessed before. For the first time, I have noticed that every South African is now flying our national flag. Everybody is just crazy about this tournament, both black and white. This tournament proved that sport is a tool for nation building.
It has always been said that a successful hosting of the World Cup in South Africa will strengthen South Africa’s case to bid for more international events. Do you think that is the case?
This has proved to the world that we are capable of hosting any international event, we have the resources and infrastructure. People are already talking about a possibility of bidding for major events and we are supporting this. The Olympics are an example, I don’t see why we can’t bid to host the Olympics in the future. It’s important for Africa.
What lessons, as a government, have you learned from hosting this FIFA World Cup?
There are many. Firstly, we learned a lot about how to work with strict timelines. We have embarked on a lot of development and we had to work within a tight schedule in order to deliver on time.
You are someone who has declared his love for football. How many matches have you been able to watch so far and which team has impressed you so far?
I have watched many games, I think this FIFA World Cup has been different. Football has been so unpredictable, we no longer have smaller countries now in football. Some of the countries who were favourites are now out of the tournament and we see that gap between the so-called big teams and other teams narrowing. Of course, there are countries that have played well. Even though Bafana Bafana did not qualify, I think we played good football and I was happy. We were so close to qualifying. I was impressed with teams like Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Germany. I think the Germans have reinvented their game, they are playing with so much speed and it’s good to watch them. But the teams from Latin America have been great. Countries like Brazil and Argentina are a pleasure to watch. In Africa, we are all proud of Ghana, they have represented us very well.
Mr President, we might as well put you on the spot and ask you to predict which team will win the tournament on 11 July?
It’s difficult to say, but I think the winner will be amongst the teams I have counted (laughing).
People often talk about the legacy of this FIFA World Cup. What legacy would you want it to leave for the South African child?
Firstly, the world is aware that Africa has the capacity to host the World Cup. Everybody has seen that we are equal to the task. It has taken the economic development to a different level. One of the important things for Africa is education and programmes like 1Goal are playing a vital role – that is legacy. This tournament has inspired Africans.