I have been to many a playing field in my day, and never have I seen a sports arena as breathtaking as Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa. After taking a private tour of the $457 million marvel, I left utterly stunned, for both better and worse.
Named after the late leader of the South African Communist Party, the stadium is a stylistic masterpiece. The eggshell white facility is visible for miles, rising from the Earth in milky waves, contrasting sharply with the dusty, urban environs that surround it. The open roof has a graceful, slender arc connecting one side of the stadium to the other. The arc itself is a wonder: starting as one clean curve, and then splitting into two separate stretches of white. This is an homage to the post-apartheid South African flag, with the stripes meant to symbolize, as the government website states, “the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity.” Well-heeled adrenalin junkies can even go to the top of the arc and bungee-swing across the pitch.
On one side of the stadium behind the goal is a completely open vista in the shape of a mammoth square called “the window unto Durban,” and sure enough, the Durban skyline backdrops the stadium through this “window.” But the true engineering achievement of Moses Mabhida Stadium are the bleachers. They angle up with such subtlety that the effect is of a saucer instead of a bowl. Every one of the 74,000 seats has a picture perfect sightline on the action, whether you are in the nosebleeds or the corporate boxes. The seats themselves are painted in rich colors: the first level is royal blue to represent the ocean, the middle ones are green to signify the land, and the top is brown, as a sportswriter said to me, “so it looks full on television.”
The most striking color in the stadium is not in the bleachers, though. It’s the grass. The grass is a green so bright it hurts the eyes, with every blade appearing as if it were painstakingly colored with a magic marker. This has been created with the aid of near-infinite gallons of water, which I saw constantly irrigating the field.
I raise the issue of the stadium’s incomparable beauty because South African politicians in support of the World Cup accuse detractors of what they call “Afro-pessimism.” They allege critics lack the faith that South Africa can host an event of this magnitude. Bollocks. No one doubts whether South Africa can do it. The problem is how the government and FIFA are executing their nefarious plans.
This is a country where staggering wealth and poverty already stand side by side. The World Cup, far from helping this situation, is just putting a magnifying glass on every blemish of this post-apartheid nation.
To see a country already dotted with perfectly usable stadiums spend approximately $6 billion on new facilities is to notice a squandering of resources that is unconscionable.
To see endless gallons of water wasted on the soccer pitch, in a country where lack of access to water is spurring protests throughout the townships, is to recognize a reckless disregard for the people’s needs. As Simon Magagula, who lives in a mud house near one of the new stadiums said to The New York Times, “We’ve been promised a better life, but look how we live. If you pour water into a glass, you can see things moving inside.”
To see an architectural marvel like Moses Mabhida Stadium in a country where access to clean and affordable shelter is a pipe-dream for so many is to witness the interests of government colliding with the people they’ve been elected to serve.
And to see a stadium named in honor of Moses Mabhida, who symbolizes anti-poverty struggles for millions of South Africans, is to stare at irony in its most lurid form.
As the price and the demands made by FIFA grow more onerous, many are having second thoughts. Zayn Nabbi, the sports correspondent for South Africa’s E Television, gave me the stadium tour. Nabbi looked around and said, “The Moses Mabhida Stadium, structurally, is brilliant. World class. However, when you think about the cost in a country with so much damaged public service, it’s difficult to think that this was right. There are areas in dire need of funding. We were all so caught up in the love story of winning the World Cup—the romance of it all—we didn’t grasp or we weren’t told the repercussions. We all got caught up in the spin. I put myself in that category certainly. The hangover when this is all done will be brutal, man.”
This may be one of those times when the hangover starts before the party is even over. Townships organizations have already called for protests during the World Cup if demands for basic public services aren’t met. That’s what happens when the grass water is clean but the wells of drinking water—along with FIFA’s politics—are absolutely filthy.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]