African football continues to make enormous progress - but are the continent's stadia keeping pace with these developments?

For years experts have been predicting that world football in the 21st century will be increasingly dominated by African teams. Nigeria's gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, plus the recent successes of Ghana and Nigeria in FIFA youth tournaments, only serve to reinforce such claims.

But what of the stadiums of Africa? Are they keeping pace with the rapid strides being made upon the field of play, and is the staging of the Under-17 World Championship in Egypt next year a prelude to Africa staging its first ever World Cup? Already Morocco and South Africa have indicated a wish to bid for the 2006 tournament. Reports suggest that Egypt might also be tempted.

It would be unwise to make generalisations about facilities in a such a diverse continent of over 550 million people, comprising 51 member nations of FIFA. But there are many shared issues across the continent, not least of which is a lack of resources for building and maintenance, allied to testing climatic conditions.

Most of all, stadiums in Africa bear a symbolic status going far beyond their mere structural attributes. A few were built by the European colonial powers, but many more arose in celebration of hard won independence; their names being perfect expressions of this sentiment. For example, Maputo's main stadium, once the Salazar Stadium (named after the Portuguese dictator), is now the Independence Stadium. Accra's main venue is similarly named, as is the national stadium in Lusaka. Both Benin and Senegal have a Stade de l' Amitié (Friendship). Other evocative names are Liberty (Ibadan), Reunification (Douala) and Revolution (Brazzaville).

In the post-colonial era, foreign powers have continued to build stadiums as a means of gaining political and economic influence, most notably the Chinese, who have constructed multi-purpose stadiums in Gambia, Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Zaire. The French have been similarly active in creating facilities for Cameroon and the Ivory Coast.

Today, Africa can claim to have some of the largest stadiums in world football. Algeria's 5 July Stadium in Algiers (opened in 1976) holds 80,000 and would not be out of place in Europe. The same is true of Morocco's 80,000 capacity Mohammed V Stadium in Casablanca, and the 50,000 capacity Moulay Abdullah Stadium in Rabat.

Nigeria's Surulere Stadium in Lagos holds 60,000, and was built in 1972 by German contractors, using British designers. Zimbabwe's National Stadium in Harare has a similar scale and pedigree.

The largest venue of all is in Cairo, where the International Stadium officially holds 100,000, even if a crowd estimated at 150,000 was said to have packed in for one of the legendary derbies between Al-Ahly and Zamalek, in 1981.

But although these venues were all advanced for their time, it has to be conceded that in many cities, operators have struggled to maintain or upgrade the facilities to keep pace with modern trends. There have been widespread criticisms of playing surfaces, in particular.

On the positive side, however, because stadiums such as that at Surulere, Yaoundé (Cameroon) and Karasarani (Nairobi) are relatively modern, structurally, the potential for refurbishment is considerable. As Tunisia demonstrated for the 19th African Nations Cup in 1994, a concerted effort resulted in the transformation of three older stadiums; the El Menzah Olympic Stadium and Zouiten Stadium (both in Tunis), and the Olympic Stadium in Sousse.

Greater success on the pitch, and the recent commitment of financial support to all nations participating in FIFA competitions, can only advance similar developments.

But if there will always be pressure for such funds to be spent on other areas of development, as South Africa's hosting of the African Nations Cup proved so powerfully earlier this year, the potential rewards of stadium investment - both to individual nations and to the wider prestige of African football - are no less than the builders of the original stadiums always intended.

For example: First National Bank Stadium, Soccer City, Johannesburg
During the dark days of apartheid, white South Africans developed rugby stadiums to equal the world's finest, most notably Ellis Park (Johannesburg), Newlands Stadium (Cape Town) and Kings Park (Durban).

But for the soccer-mad black communities in the townships, ground facilities remained totally inadequate to accommodate safely the thousands who flocked to games featuring the likes of Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. In 1988, six million fans attended NSL First Division matches alone.

So for South African football, the inauguration of the 85,000 capacity First National Bank Stadium on 7 October 1989 represented not only a historic leap forward, but also a significant step along on the long road to emancipation. Developed through co-operation between leaders from both sides of the country's divided community, the FNB Stadium provided a tantalising foretaste of what a new South Africa could offer. It also served as a vital rallying point for Nelson Mandela in the days before and after his emotional accession to power.

The stadium itself is situated on a dusty, rocky, but well-connected expanse of 24 hectares - known as Soccer City - halfway between Johannesburg's city centre and Soweto.

The design consists of two main elements. The lower tier seats 65,000 in four distinct sections, sunk below ground level and curved gently around the pitch in a quadric plan (like the Aztec Stadium, to ensure good sightlines all round). The existence of a moat also allows a fence-free view - for many older supporters the first they had experienced at a major venue.

On the west side is a raised tier of seats, built above three levels of 80 private boxes, hospitality areas and offices serving the South African Football Association, the new Premier League and Orlando Pirates. The commercial facilities ensured that the developers could yield a regular return from the start - necessary not only to repay a R40 million loan from First National Bank, but also to meet those ongoing maintenance costs which have proved so elusive elsewhere in black Africa.

The long-term plan is to extend the west stand around the bowl for an eventual capacity of 112,000. This would make Soccer City king of all African stadiums, and on par with such European giants as the Nou Camp and Lisbon's Stadium of Light.

Could the FNB Stadium also become the first African stadium to stage a World Cup Final?

With Ellis Park down the road, a stunning new 35,000 seat athletics stadium close by, and a bid for Cape Town to stage the Olympic Games in 2004 already looking good, it is hard to imagine this dream not coming true in the foreseeable future.