South Africa has been waiting a long time for this, and after years, months, weeks of hype and preparation, they’re finally ready. Well… sort of.

With the 2010 World Cup set to kick off in seven short days when the host nation takes on Mexico at Soccer City in Johannesburg, the weight of expectation, curiosity, and, yes, skepticism, is weighing heavily on the minds and mood of South Africans.

On the surface, airports have been given successful facelifts (especially in Jo’burg), extra security has been unleashed to petrol popular tourist areas in Cape Town, and nearly every shop in the country has been stocked from floor to ceiling with soccer jerseys, flags, and every other imaginable World Cup-related knick-knack you can imagine. (Today, I almost bought a pack of Brazil team-colored gummy sour straws at a Pick ‘n’ Pay grocery store; instead, I went with the plastic, candy-filled South Africa soccer shoe.)

The streets of Cape Town are certainly buzzing with wig-wearing, cape-donning, soccer-crazed tourists beginning to trickle in a week or so early. The soon-to-be-omnipresent sound of the vuvazela (a long, plastic horn) is ringing with more and more frequency and ferocity, and restaurants on Long Street and bars on uber-trendy Kloof Street are filling up earlier and emptying out later.

It’s impossible not to get wrapped up in all the hoopla and excitement.

Still, skepticism pervades within both local and international circles. Infrastructure upgrades are ongoing and some of them are, obviously, well behind schedule. Early projections of 2 million plus visitors have dropped to 1 million, then 500k, and according to a recent news broadcast, now hover in the 300k range. Doubts about the begrudgingly beloved Bafana Bafana national team, who’ve disappointed on the international stage in recent years, remain high. Most fans I’ve talked with would be happy if they could just pull off an upset over Mexico in the first game; others fear, are almost predicting, a few embarrassing blowouts in group match play. (I personally think they’ll surprise, but that’s just a hunch.)

The inevitable (unfair?) comparisons to the wildly successful 2006 World Cup in Germany are already dominating international coverage on news outlets like CNN. Indeed, with a number of broadcasts focusing on potential negatives, such as the fact that so far Americans have bought the most tickets and that, now, it’s falling on South Africans themselves to buy up the rest and fill the stadiums, the international press seems to have taken baby steps towards a predetermined narrative that South Africa just wasn’t ready for something of this magnitude. We’ll find out soon enough.

It’s hard to imagine that just 20 years ago South Africa was still flailing under the oppression of apartheid. As a country, progress has clearly been made, but there’s still so, so much more to be done. With unemployment at anywhere from 35 – 45% depending on who you ask, and with 10% of the population effectively controlling 90% of the money, the distribution of wealth remains insanely askew.

You see it on the streets, when the young, rich, and trendy with a taste for 50 Rand cocktails brush by homeless people scrounging for change; such social issues aren’t unique to South Africa, by any means, but here it often feels that much more unbalanced.

It’s a complex problem and one that warrants much more discussion than I have time for here; to be sure, a situation I desperately hope improves sooner rather than later. A good first step, I think, towards boosting the promising South African economy and, hopefully, helping create more jobs would be a World Cup that succeeds with flying colors. So, let’s all root for this sort-of underdog to pull it off. I think they can; no, I know they can… and will.

Photo Copyright Brian Spencer