Speaking to FIFA.com exclusively from his office in Zurich, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter has urged the world to trust South Africa and the African continent to deliver a successful FIFA World Cup™. With the 500-day countdown to South Africa 2010 beginning in earnest tomorrow, the FIFA President praises the country for being "a young republic, but an organised one", and speaks of the challenges they will face, both in the next calendar year and beyond.
In a candid interview, Blatter also speaks about his hopes for Africa and African football, both on and off the pitch. He also recalls with fondness his first visit to Ethiopia as a FIFA Development Officer in 1976 where his dream to bring the FIFA World Cup to Africa originated.
FIFA.com: We have 500 days before kick-off of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. What will make this FIFA World Cup different?
Joseph S. Blatter: It is the first FIFA World Cup to take place on the African continent. Africa has given the world of football so many, many talented and outstanding players, coaches, clubs and national teams and therefore it was justice that one day that they would host the World Cup in Africa. Now it is Africa's time. I am very happy that in 500 days the World Cup will kick-off in South Africa. It will be an historic moment. For me, it will not only be a realisation of a dream, but of an initiative I had back in 1976 when I started my career as a Development Officer in FIFA. It was then I went to Addis Ababa [in Ethiopia] and saw what football means to Africa.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge for South Africa in organising the next FIFA World Cup?
The challenge for South Africa is to deliver the FIFA World Cup - and to deliver it at the highest possible level. They will do it, especially with all the arrangements they have made in terms of construction, technical and logistical infrastructure; transport, hospitality, accommodation etc. South Africa is an organised country. They haven't had all the civic and political rights other countries have had until 1994, so it is a young republic, but an organised one. Therefore, it is not a difficult task to make this FIFA World Cup a success. But this is not just a FIFA World Cup for South Africa; it is an African World Cup. As the former President of South Africa [Thabo] Mbeki said: "We must make sure that this is the African World Cup."
Do you think that the global economic crisis will have an impact on the preparations for the FIFA World Cup?
No, it will not have an impact because the FIFA World Cup will take place. The budgets have been composed, given and ratified. Naturally, we might not have the same return of investment as we had at the last World Cup in 2006, but the world was a different place then. For FIFA, it's not important to get money out of Africa, but it's important to us that the Africans enjoy organising their own World Cup - and they will do. A lot of big footballers such as Pele, [Michel] Platini, [Johan] Cruijff and [Franz] Beckenbauer say that primarily football is a game - and secondly a business. For FIFA it is not a business - it is the game of association football.
One of FIFA's core aims is to build a better future and it is starting to bear fruit now through different projects, especially in Africa. What is FIFA's mission?
Nowadays, football is so popular around the world. Through football, we touch about one billion people in every part of the world. It gives emotions, hope and it brings people together. It helps to build a better future for people, because it is more than just kicking a ball. It is an education. It is a school of life, based on discipline and respect. So, when you play football, you might not become a big star, but you become a better human being.
What legacy does FIFA want to leave in Africa?
There will be a double legacy. There will be the one in South Africa. Through the competition, there will be extremely tight security, just as there is at the Olympic Games and other huge sporting events. We hope that this security will be maintained after the World Cup in order to ensure that we have left a legacy. The other legacy is for the whole of Africa. We want them to be proud and be able to say: 'We Africans have organised the world's most important sporting event: the FIFA World Cup.'
In terms of this legacy, how important is the 'Win in Africa with Africa' initiative?
We can only offer possibilities to develop football in Africa, but it is up to the Africans themselves to develop their own game. Everyone has to do their own homework. FIFA can offer a lot of incentives. We can organise courses, etc, but 'homework' must be done by all the national associations. They will do it, because they have done it in the past and I am sure they will do it in the future. I hope that we have an African team reaching the semi-finals at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but that is not an easy thing because of the standard of competition from Europe, South America and Asia. Combined, Europe and South America have more than half of the participants for the World Cup, so mathematically it will be easier for them to make the semi-finals.
We have to trust in the Africans' ability to organise the competition. Trust will give them confidence. If they have confidence, they will be better in the future.
But you are confident that one day an African team will reach the semi-finals?
One day, they will be there, I just hope that it will be in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Yes. We have to trust in the Africans' ability to organise the competition. Trust will give them confidence. If they have confidence, they will be better in the future, not only as footballers, but as organisers. This is my personal wish as the President of FIFA.