JOHANNESBURG, South Africa April 23, 2010 -- South Africa will host the 2010 World Cup in less than 60 days, a first for the African continent.
Hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world are planning to attend. Americans and Europeans have made up the bulk of the ticket-buyers, which was expected. What wasn't expected are the small numbers of Africans who will attend.
Despite soccer's being the most popular sport on a continent where fans are often referred to as "football (soccer) crazy," Africans have accounted for only 2 percent of the more than 2 million in ticket sales, buying less than 12,000, according to a report by Grant Thornton, an international accounting firm. The African fan numbers were never expected to be huge but they've totaled 77 percent less than predicted.
"Given evidence of huge interest from the continent, this indicates that there has been a failure in distribution channels and unaffordable pricing," according to the report.
Critics say the first problem was the way in which tickets were made available for purchase. The first four phases of ticketing were entirely through the Internet and credit-card dependent. Less than 5 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans have access to the Web, and in largely cash-based societies, credit card usage is even less.
Cost was also a prohibitive factor. Travel within Africa is expensive. Air fares are high on a normal basis and inter-country road trips on sometimes unpaved highways, if even possible, can take weeks.
The average ticket price for a match is about $139, with the cheapest around $80. While there is a special category for South African residents where tickets can go for as low $19, residents of other African countries are ineligible.
"So if you're a Liberian or if you're from Mali or from Kenya and you want to go to the World Cup, tough. It's $80," Steve Bloomfield, journalist and author of "Africa United: How Football Explains Africa," said. "When you add that up with the flight and the hotel, it becomes very expensive."
Marketing World Cup to Africa
Still, Bloomfield said, there are rich Africans, particularly in the countries with qualifying teams: Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria and South Africa, that can afford the trip but aren't going.
"FIFA [the International Federation of Association Football] has not done a very good job of marketing this World Cup to Africa in terms of tickets," he said, pointing to the devotion many Africans have for teams in the English Premier League such as Manchester United and Arsenal.
"They needed to say, 'Look, put your money where your mouth is. This is your World Cup, come and see a match.'"
FIFA is beginning to do a public relations push on the continent, particularly in the qualifying countries. But with less than two months until the tournament, Bloomfield said, it may be too late.
South African FIFA organizers last week released the remaining 500,000 tickets for over–the-counter purchasing. Residents across the country lined up in droves to buy their tickets to "history." Within eight days, nearly 200,000 tickets had already been sold.
James Byrom, the South Africa ticket project manager, defended the decision to wait until now to begin the over-the-counter sales.
"We had to wait until the stadiums were finished, the camera positions put in place and the various other elements that affect the seating were done, in order to make sure that when we gave someone a seat, we knew that they would be able to see the games from there," he said.
FIFA's Secretary-General Jerome Valke told reporters at a news conference in Switzerland that the organization was pleased with the results so far of over-the-counter sales, and is "working on a number of additional programs" to help sell the remaining 300,000 tickets.
He predicted that the stadiums will be 95 percent full by the time the 2010 World Cup begins.
Valke admitted, however, that the system of relying on Internet sales may not have been the "most friendly" for local soccer fans. But even if all South Africans buy the remaining tickets, it doesn't solve the issue of the first African World Cup that most Africans will likely end up watching on television.
"I'm still hopeful it will be an African World Cup," Bloomfield said. " I was in Durban [South Africa], it was an amazing atmosphere; very loud, very enthusiastic and a mixed crowd with blacks and whites. I'm hopeful that some of that color will be on display during the tournament.
"But the fact that very few African nations, outside of the one hosting the World Cup, will be there is a real shame."