To Go or Not to Go: The World Cup 2010 South Africa Question

South Africa 2010

The US is going to South Africa.  As I followed Grant Wahl’s twitter feed of Saturday’s game from San Pedro Sula, an odd experience of using a 2009 technology to get around the 1980 closed circuit, I was surprised, impressed, and pleased with the fortitude Bob Bradley’s men showed in Honduras.  Having not been able to watch, I imagine the game to have played much like the Confederation’s Cup this summer: the US offering just enough tactical and technical savvy to complement their most distinctive quality of sheer determination.  There are still many questions as to how far that combination can take the US at the World Cup finals, and I’m sure much will be written on that topic between now and next June.  But for me the US victory, along with the crystallizing of all the nations that will be at the finals next summer, raises a more difficult question: will I be in South Africa with them?

As the World Cup qualifiers conclude and the final slate of teams becomes clear, I find myself tormented by the truth and the cliché: going to see the World Cup in South Africa would be a “once in a lifetime experience.”  I consider myself lucky in that I have been to South Africa before, and know it to be a place of much wonder.  But my previous travels were part of other experiences in Africa, and were funded accordingly.  For this World Cup it seems to all be up to me and my “struggling middle class” existence.  And by my count going to South Africa next summer would be a dauntingly expensive endeavor.

I imagine I’m not the only world soccer fan sitting somewhere in the world and trying to work through the mental calculus of what exactly a trip to the World Cup would be worth.  And while there are many personal variables that we all have to take into account, I also put my faith as a social scientist in the idea that there some patterns and trends to help make sense of the value of soccer fandom.

And for me these patterns and trends are complicated by, and more interesting because of, the fact that we are talking about Africa: a continent that is fascinating, diverse, vibrant, and where somewhere around 40% of the population is estimated to live in extreme poverty (defined as less than a dollar per day).  Even if I can figure out a way to afford it, could I enjoy a sundowner at Soccer City or Royal Bafokeng with a clear conscious?  Probably not—but if I can figure out the right rationalizations to assuage my middle class guilt then I might be able to do it anyway.

The Economic Calculation

Though there are many different possible ways to figure the likely costs of a trip to South Africa 2010, for sake of a baseline I’m just going to try and keep things simple.  When I search for a plane ticket from the west coast of the US to South Africa for next June or July the least expensive fare I can find is around $2,300.  When I look at a basic package offered by an official FIFA partner that would allow me to attend at least two games (there are lower price packages are for one game—but going all that way just for one game doesn’t seem right) and stay in the lowest class of shared accommodation the cheapest seems a bit more than $3,000.  Figuring in meal money and other expenses, a low end estimate for a weeklong trip for two games is going to be around $6000.00 for one person.  And since I’d really like to go with my wife, the baseline for us is ultimately around $12,000.

Of course an official package is not likely to be the most cost-efficient way to travel, but I’ll admit to being intimidated by FIFA’s iron grip on ticketing.  For both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 I’ve been a good consumer, played by the rules, and entered the official “ticket lottery” with hopes that the allocation process would be fair.  But for all my efforts and credit card numbers I’ve gotten nothing but automatically generated emails informing me that—surprise—I didn’t get any tickets.  I am eternally embittered by the fact that big tour companies and corporate partners seem to have access to infinite numbers of tickets when a non-corporate fan such as myself is merely strung along in a “lottery” implying that this is really about my bad luck.  But that’s capitalism, and I do nothing but occasionally rattle the bars of my personal iron cage from the ivory tower.

And the ivory tower, when you are a junior faculty member at a regional institution where the incentive is “quality of life” and “mission fit” rather than money, doesn’t pay very well.  For the amount of education required the pay at my job is perhaps only undercut by non-profit work with social services—which, of course, is my wife’s job.  I’m not going to get into any more specifics, but suffice it to say that $12,000 would be many months of our combined total take-home pay and years worth of “disposable income.”

Maybe this is the way to go

To dream a dream.

But the voice in my head (the one unconsciously negotiating with travel board marketers and credit card ads) tells me that you can’t put a price on the experience of attending a World Cup.  Watching the US walk out for their match against North Korea (just a prediction for the “random” draw) on the glistening grass of Durban or Polokwane would, I imagine, be “priceless.”  But the trick here is that I could still get some satisfaction from watching that moment on TV—particularly if that TV was a new plasma screen HD model that I purchased with a fraction of the money I could save by not going to South Africa.

This type of calculation also gets tricky because it starts as a rational cost-benefit analysis and quickly becomes a test of one’s life’s philosophy.  There is, for example, a growing body of research looking specifically at what makes people “happy,” the bottom line of which is often that money matters much less than things such as healthy relationships and meaningful experiences.  In Jonathan Haidt’s interesting 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, for example, he notes that the pursuit of luxuries is often misguided:

People would be happier and healthier if they took more time off and “spent” it with their family and friends, yet America has long been heading in the opposite direction.  People would be happier if they reduced their commuting time, even if it meant living in smaller houses, yet American trends are toward ever larger houses and ever longer commutes.  People would be happier and healthier if they took longer vacations, even if that meant earning less, yet vacation times are shrinking in the Untied States, and in Europe as well. (p. 99)

I would presume this would include “soccer vacations”—though it is somewhat surprising to me that I haven’t come across much research specifically looking at the personal value of sports fandom.  There is a great deal of research looking at the macro-scale value of mega-sports events such as the World Cup, and some research about what motivates sports fans generally, but it is hard to find much attempting to analyze what fans get for their money.  Hard core fans the world over spend great sums to follow their team and, in effect, subsidize millionaire players—and while we know a lot about the business implications of that process we seem to know little about the personal implications for fans.

One of the few academic analyses I could find laid out a diverse assortment of factors that determine whether people decide to spent money on “sport tourism” including escape, aesthetic players, “tribal connections,” cultural connections, vicarious achievement, tradition, income, alternatives, and more.  But ultimately, Aaron Smith and Bob Smith conclude, it is too much to really put it all together into a single equation: “Modeling the fan-sport relationship and the factors that impel individuals to make consumption decisions that involve travel is monumentally troublesome, since fans are not motivated by individual or psychological needs alone, but by a complex set of social, cultural and economic factors.”  So whether I want to take out a second mortgage for the prospect of watching the US v Bafana Bafana on African soil is more “monumentally troublesome” than just fiscal strategy.

The Philosophical Calculation

With no possibility of a rational economic decision, a fan is left with one’s own perspective on what a personal experience of the World Cup and of South Africa is worth.  And this is where the broader context of Africa becomes particularly relevant.

Since South Africa was awarded the World Cup there has been simmering controversy about perceptions of South Africa, and Africa more generally, as dangerous and dysfunctional.  Though such concerns are often just naive exaggerations of real facts about crime rates and work stoppages, in my mind they should not play a factor in anyone’s decision to go to South Africa.  The simple reality that millions of people both manage and thrive in South Africa everyday suggests that you will too—in my admittedly brief visits to South Africa the people I interacted with were unfailingly decent, interesting, curious, and welcoming.

South Africa 2010

South Africa, at risk of sounding like a travel agent, is truly a vibrant nation diverse and engaging both for its people and its geography.  But with such diversity, and with the type of inequalities that are common in many parts of the world, there are problems.  One of the fascinating things about South Africa is that it encapsulates much of the entire dynamic continent of Africa—its wonders, its potential, and its challenges.  Travelling in South Africa means being careful, but not any more so than in travelling through any unfamiliar place or any big city whether in Africa, North America, or Europe.

South Africa is also worth visiting because of the starkness of its inequality—some of the richest people in the world live across the street from some of the poorest (where in the US we tend to do more spreading out our inequalities).  And this is another interesting question that always strikes me when I think about travelling to Africa.  The expense of getting to Africa does not only take money away from my large screen plasma TV fund—it could equally be spent on doing my small part to rectify the unjust distribution of wealth in the world.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi we used to have American or European groups travel through on week-long “service” missions to build houses or help schools with projects.  Though the people in these groups were unfailingly good willed, the amount they were able to tangibly accomplish in a week was very little.  But, I couldn’t help but think, the $20,000 a ten person group would have spent on airfare might have been able to accomplish quite a bit in a country where the annual per capita income is around $700.

Peter Singer

Though I realize I’m getting a bit off the soccer topic here, a recent book by philosopher Peter Singer has had me thinking about this even more.  In The Life You Can Save, Singer approaches the injustice of global inequality by noting that spending a relatively small portion of our income on aid efforts can make a big difference in the least developed parts of the world—which, unfortunately, often include Africa.  One of his striking philosophical tricks is to point out that donating a few hundred dollars, the cost of a nice pair of shoes, can cure life-threatening illnesses for children in the developing world.  And if we were walking by a pond where a child was drowning we would not hesitate to dive in—even if it meant ruining our expensive shoes.  Yet in our daily lives we don’t think to sacrifice our luxuries towards the possibility of greater moral goods.

To try and bring this back to soccer, Singer’s parable can be applied in interesting ways to the World Cup question: if I had a precious World Cup ticket in my pocket and on the way to the stadium passed a drowning child, would I hesitate to dive in if it were going to ruin my ticket?  I would hope not.  Then how can I justify giving my money to FIFA and its corporate affiliates rather than to one of the organizations working to make a real difference in African lives?

The Muddled Calculation

So ultimately, despite my faith in social science and the inspiration of Conor Casey in San Pedro Sula, I’m just not sure what to do.  In the global scheme of things I consider myself very lucky to have good food to eat, a decent place to live, and health insurance—but I still can’t help but sometimes envy the luxuries of super-rich soccer fandom.  If I only had an extra $102,000.00 to give to Emirates, for example, I could get in seven games at South Africa 2010 and a month at The Table Bay Hotel.  And life would be good.  I think?

The fact that 2010 will be the first World Cup in Africa is ultimately both a boon and a burden.  It will be a spectacular soccer showcase, and I suspect South Africa will be a brilliant host who will open the world’s eyes to the vibrancy of a continent too often associated only with problems.  But some of those problems are real, and truly confronting those problems means finding ways to cope with and think about the massive inequalities of modern society.

When the US national team lands in South Africa it will be “disadvantaged” on the field compared to some other teams whose players are assured of regular playing time at the top clubs in the world.  But when US fans, and relatively wealthy fans from all countries, land in South Africa they will experience the advantage of the wealth and power required to simply afford such a journey.  I’m finding that it takes some confusing calculations for me to figure out whether I can be part of that experience.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

15 thoughts on “To Go or Not to Go: The World Cup 2010 South Africa Question

  1. KT

    Cost of going to South Africa: $12,000.

    Cost of a nice flatscreen plasma HD television: $2,000.

    Not getting robbed or maimed or killed by the locals in South Africa: Priceless.

  2. Tom Dunmore

    Is everyone forgetting Visa are the official World Cup sponsor now, and not Mastercard? I don’t want Pitch Invasion getting slapped with a lawsuit by Sepp’s cronies!

  3. Andrew Guest Post author

    It is funny how deeply a “good” advertising tag line infects our consciousness–regardless of the latest sponsorship agreements.

    And while I appreciate attempts at humor, I also feel compelled to re-emphasize that I don’t think the risks of bad things happening in South Africa are a legitimate reason not to go. Bad things happened in Germany during the 2006 World Cup, bad things happen in my neighborhood in Portland (including my next-door neighbor getting his new plasma TV stolen right out of his living room just last month), and bad things happen in South Africa. But most people in all such contexts have mostly good experiences. In fact, one of the best reasons to go to South Africa is for the chance to move beyond stereotypes and actually experience Africa for all its complexities. Though I’m still not sure I can afford it!

  4. bayarearefugee

    Love the article. My wife and I did a similar calculation before she was accepted to grad school and the trip became literally impossible. But, we did make it out to Germany for the World Cup. We didn’t actually go to a game — like you we didn’t win the lottery and, unlike you, tried to get tickets another way and failed miserably — but just being around that kind of atmosphere can not be replicated.

    It’s too bad that airfares are so expensive, I’d have to imagine that you can find decent accommodations for far less money than you’re being quoted. In any case, I happen to think travel is one of those things that makes going into some debt worthwhile. Even if you don’t actually attend a game in person, I think being in SA for the cultural experience would be awesome.

    And once you take the cost of dealing with ticket brokers, I’m sure you could figure out a way for you and your wife to rent an apartment — which also allows you to cook for yourself — for a fraction of the cost.

    You certainly strike me as someone who wants the experience of being at the World Cup as much as you want to watch the U.S. win a game in person. I’d suggest at least exploring the possibility of going there through less-official avenues and seeing how it works out.

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  6. Inca

    I put in for tickets to three matches in 2006…can’t remember exactly which ones, but I had our itinerary planned out in case we got 1, 2, or 3, and we only got one match…between G3 & G4…Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. I was able to give up the ticket and it was bought, so I got (most) of my money back…and we bought a HD set instead. Which is now less than half of what we paid for it back then.

  7. Mikebsiu

    I would wait till it came to Europe or the Americas, because it might be financially more affordable. Also, as someone who was robbed in Cape Town, crimes pretty bad. My cousins live there and their community has a private security firm, because the police take too long. If you do go the people in your hotel will tell you where to go, and where not to go.

  8. Tatenda

    This a silly racist article. Just because it is an African country you pose this question? If it was Germany, a former Nazi country? No one would have raised questions! Have you been to South Africa before? One should not make judgements before they see the situation for themselves instead of believing phony CNN lies.

    The more tourists who go to SA, the better off the local economy and those who live off it – those who sell arts/crafts, or are working in restaurants and owning businesses. So get off your ignorant ass, and enjoy what will be the best WC ever seen on this planet!

  9. Bahns

    Andrew, great article. I can tell you that I’ve had similar thoughts regarding the upcoming WC, but don’t really bother to get in to the details and settle on: I’m going, and I’ll sort out the financial aspects of it one way or another. It may be a selfish line of thought, but I ask you: Would you rather tell your grandchildren about one of the most amazing sporting and cultural experiences of your lifetime or that you paid off your mortgage 3 years early?

    I see that you have other motivations driven by you and your wife’s line of work, but I can’t emphasize how much of an inspiration it is to be involved in an event that really has no equal on the global scale, sporting-wise. I imagine attending the World Cup, especially given the complex South African backdrop you describe above, will provide much food for thought in your line of work.

    Going to Germany in 2006 and Austria-Switzerland in 2008 were two of the most amazing trips of my life, soccer-related or otherwise. Luckily the trip in 2006 was partially subsidized by a parents’ college graduation gift, but the couple grand I racked up in credit card bills were all well worth it. The Euros in 2008 was a bit trickier of a proposition for me, as I went for 19 days, but over half of those nights I didn’t pay for lodging. Travelling alone it was much easier to accomplish this, but floors of airports and train stations were my most common resting ground. And there were 4 other (that I can recall) separate instances in which I was lucky enough to have a couch offered up for the night. Being an American travelling solo for the Euros with no team to support allowed me a certain amount of intrigue and respect, I guess.

    Anyhow, besides the fact that I saw two of the most exciting and memorable soccer matches I’ve ever witnessed (USA-Italy in 2006 and Turkey-Czech Republic in 2008) these sort of trips become about so much more than just soccer. Not sure if I can grab the right cliche or even think of words to describe it, but if there is another human experience out there that compares to this, I don’t know of it. The congregation of fans alone provides for a cultural spectale not to be missed.

    Also, I would be wary if Tom puts any offer on the table to take on correspondence duties; I’m still waiting for the check for covering the Euros on this very site… I kid.

  10. Andrew Guest

    Thanks to those with constructive comments on my article’s broad question of what it’s worth to see a World Cup, and thanks to Tatenda for a reminder that a) it is tough to get people to actually read longish pieces on the internet rather than just react, and b) the issue of outsider perceptions of Africa is going to be a hot-button issue raised by next summer’s World Cup. It really will be interesting to watch–but I’m not sure casually throwing around claims of “racism” is the best way to approach it (even if that seems to be the contemporary zeitgeist in our angry era).

    It’s also amusing to think about whether “get off your ignorant ass and go” would be an effective travel promotion for South Africa–I guess it’s sort of analagous to Brian Clough’s approach to managing Leeds in “The Damned United”: your a bunch of cheating bastards, now go play inspired football. Turns out that doesn’t tend to work very well.

    So let me instead just (again) reiterate what I actually said in the article:

    “I consider myself lucky in that I have been to South Africa before, and know it to be a place of much wonder.”

    “The simple reality that millions of people both manage and thrive in South Africa everyday suggests that you will too—in my admittedly brief visits to South Africa the people I interacted with were unfailingly decent, interesting, curious, and welcoming.”

    “South Africa, at risk of sounding like a travel agent, is truly a vibrant nation diverse and engaging both for its people and its geography.”

    “It will be a spectacular soccer showcase, and I suspect South Africa will be a brilliant host who will open the world’s eyes to the vibrancy of a continent too often associated only with problems.”

    Finally, I’d also note that one of the points I was trying to make was that I do think the question of what soccer fandom is worth applies to Germany or any distant soccer expedition. Regardless of history or demographics, I did actually make a similar calculation before the World Cup in Germany 2006–and ended up deciding that I couldn’t afford to go, nor justify the expense. But that was before I started writing for Pitch Invasion (for better and for worse)!

  11. Tom Dunmore

    Pitch Invasion would love to send Andrew to WC2010 and compensate Bahns for his Euro ’08 pieces.

    Pitch Invasion is accepting donations!

    Seriously…I’ve always been torn by similar questions (though I’ll admit I don’t have the moral compass of Andrew to feel too much guilt about my travel expenses) about whether it’d be worthwhile. But then I think of the people I’d meet and the stories I’d have to tell, and like for Bahns, that seems to be worth a lot more in the long-run then a television of even the pain of more credit card debt.

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