What If They Held a World Cup in Africa and No Africans Came?

We know that soccer is traditionally a low-scoring sport—long imagined to be one reason why we excess-loving Americans have eschewed it. But the World Cup has always been about big numbers.

The latest estimates indicate that about 375,000 visitors are expected in South Africa throughout the month-long tournament beginning this week, with billions more, of course, watching from pubs and perches around the globe. This biggest of all audiences—eclipsing the Super Bowl and even the summer Olympic Games—is giving South Africa a once-in-a-nationhood chance to show its post-apartheid unification under Nelson Mandela and its current president, Jacob Zuma, with blacks and whites standing shoulder-to-shoulder to cheer on the world's greatest soccer sides.

Yet as of last week, about 160,000 tickets across all 64 World Cup matches were still for sale, including the last 800 tickets for the final, despite a sales drive aimed at local fans in South Africa. This leaves more than 5 percent of the total 2.2 million tickets unsold before the tournament gets under way. (The last World Cup, held in Germany in 2006, sold out, with more than 3.2 million tickets, or 52,401 per match, according to FIFA, the sport's governing body.) And despite efforts to make the tournament a continental celebration, few tickets have been sold to African citizens outside of South Africa. FIFA reported at the end of May that 40,000 tickets were sold to only 11,300 Africans outside of South Africa, or about 25 percent of the sales anticipated.

So what if they threw a soccer tourney and nobody from around those parts came? How would that reflect on Mandela's vision, simply defined, of making everything that life has to offer available to all?

Why the Empty Seats?

Cost is only a part of this regional sales equation. Critics have pointed more to FIFA's online sales system, deployed on a continent in which few people have access to the Internet or have credit cards, as more of a widespread barrier than $900 price tags on tickets to the finals. Many patrons who have utilized the FIFA system have complained that their orders were wrong, and daylong lines for tickets in some towns have prompted fights and disorderly conduct.

Transportation costs to and from the event have also been a widespread concern for all visitors. According to a June 3 article in The Wall Street Journal, most airfares to South Africa are three to four times higher than their normal January peak prices (the height of summer there), and hotels have doubled their rates. Last-minute flights from the U.S. to South Africa are averaging $2,500 to $3,500, and thus far, FIFA has sold about 130,000 tickets directly to U.S. residents, out of a total global pool of 2.88 million seats.

If you do have the money to afford tickets and costly airline seats, some opportunities still exist. On Saturday, FIFA announced that it will put more than 50,000 extra World Cup seats on sale, mostly from unsold hospitality packages. Roughly 38,000 top-end tickets went on sale on Monday, with prices ranging from $200 to $300, along with 15,000 partially restricted view seats. You'd better be packed and ready to go—the final wave of tickets are on sale only in South African outlets, not on the Internet. But it looks like most Africans, like most soccer fans around the world, will end up watching the Cup not in the stadium but on television.

Click here to see the teams and the stars of the 2010 World Cup.

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