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South Africans self-conscious about low turnout at Confederations Cup

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JOHANNESBURG – It’s only a game, right?

Wrong.

The just-begun Confederations Cup, in which all of the world’s top soccer teams compete for the biggest prize ahead of next year’s World Cup, has suddenly become a national obsession for South Africans – and their obsession is not always focused on how the home team performs.

Sports events here have become as important a gauge of whether a government is doing its job effectively.

On talk-radio and in newspapers, South Africans are debating just how this Confederations Cup makes South Africa look to the world, and whether the country can really get its act together for the 2010 World Cup. That is why, in a nation with nearly 40 percent unemployment and deteriorating hospitals and schools, there is suddenly more attention on empty stadiums, sluggish bus transport from stadiums to hotels, and a massive crackdown on beggars and streetside hawkers at sports venues.

Today, the Congress of South African Trades Unions (COSATU) raised alarm bells about the “embarrassing” emptiness of South African stadiums, particularly in the first game of South Africa vs. Iraq. While fans at the game managed to fill Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium with a cacophonous roar of their plastic-trumpet “vuvuzelas,” they barely managed to fill even the bottom-most tier of the seats. South Africa’s team, the Bafana Bafana, fought to a scoreless draw against the Iraqis. (Turnout was higher for the US-Italy and British-Egypt soccer games.)

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