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South Africa beckons for U.S. in 2010

NEW YORK -- Danny Jordaan, CEO of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organizing Committee South Africa, is traveling the world representing the nation of South Africa. Jordaan is doing his best to spread the word that his country is ready to host the 2010 World Cup, but that doesn't mean he is above cracking a joke about the South African national team.

As he met with American media in The Helmsley Park Lane Hotel on Thursday, Jordaan quipped that South Africa's team wasn't exactly striking fear in anybody these days. He also pointed out that while countries such as Spain, Brazil and the United States had qualified for the 2009 Confederations Cup as champions of their regions, South Africa was invited because they "must be" as hosts. "You cannot organize a party and not invite yourself," Jordaan joked.

What Jordaan did not joke about was South Africa's readiness to host the 2010 World Cup, and Africa's ability to put on a unique and memorable event. Jordaan expressed complete confidence in his country's ability to not only host the World Cup, but to make it an unforgettable tournament.

"There's just a different spirit around football on the African continent," Jordaan said. "It is a sport that gives life and hope, that creates an atmosphere of celebration and joy on a continent where there is little else that gives hope and joy and celebration.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Guatemala
Nov. 19
Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Commerce City, Colo.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

"Not the economy, not the politics, not the infrastructure, not the environment. Nothing. It's football," Jordaan said. "And when fans of the world get together with the African fans, they will experience it."

As for the constant rumors about South Africa's lack of preparedness, and the persistent suggestions that FIFA just might pull the plug and move the next World Cup to a country capable of hosting it on short notice (like the United States), FIFA executive board member Chuck Blazer stated very clearly that concerns over the possibility of South Africa losing the 2010 World Cup, or not being ready for it, should be put to rest.

"I can tell you that we had a very, very in-depth analysis that was presented by the organizing committee and by FIFA," Blazer said. "I concluded at the end of the meeting that I felt comfortable in being able to answer that question, wherever I go, with a resounding yes."

"We can set aside the issue as to whether it's going to happen, it will happen and it is going to happen very, very well," Blazer said. "There are lots of little things [to be resolved] but certainly I can tell you that anybody who will be watching these games on television throughout the entire world are going to see a magnificent World Cup.

"They're going to see it in facilities that will parallel any that we've been in the world. They're going to see it with crowds and atmosphere that will rival any competition that we've been in."

Reports of delays in the construction of South African World Cup stadiums coupled with recent resignations of high-ranking officials in the South African organizing committee have raised doubts about the 2010 host's ability to stage the event.

"People say ' well, they're not ready yet.' Well, we weren't ready until 10 minutes before kickoff (of the 1994 World Cup)," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "That's the reality."

"There are going to be some problems, let's be real clear, but every World Cup I've been to there's some real problems," Gulati said of the 2010 World Cup. "We know there will be issues but we know it will be a spectacular event and we're really looking forward to it."

Gulati and the U.S. national team will see first-hand just how prepared South Africa is for the 2010 World Cup when they travel there for the Confederations Cup next summer. Boasting a strong list of participating countries including Spain, Italy and Brazil, the Confederations Cup is expected to be a very competitive event, and perhaps just as importantly, it is being used to see just how prepared South Africa is to handle the world's most popular sporting event.

Gulati's trip to the Confederations Cup next summer is also likely to include plenty of business as the U.S. Soccer Federation prepares to make its own World Cup bid. The United States has long been linked to a bid for 2018, and Gulati acknowledged on Thursday that a bid was in the works. What he wouldn't do is commit to a specific year yet.

"We are in the process of preparing to put together a bid,' Gulati said. "Whether it is 2018 or 2022 we don't know yet. We are waiting to see how the process goes, but we are working toward a bid."

As the United States looks ahead to potentially hosting another World Cup, South Africa is looking to the United States as one of the countries it hopes to draw the most fans from in two years time. According to Jordaan, Americans already constitute the second large group of tourists to visit South Africa, which will look to tap into that already-established tourist base to attract as many as 10,000 U.S. soccer fans to Confederations Cup. While that number may be a bit ambitious for next summer's tournament, American fans aren't wasting any time making preparations for 2010.

"In terms of U.S. Soccer and the American market, the demand of inquiries for tickets that we've had rival that of any World Cup we've had," Gulati said. "Which really means rivals that of Germany [World Cup 2006] because that was so far beyond anything we've had."

With American interest in the next World Cup growing steadily, Gulati foresees a tournament that will appeal to soccer fans all across the United States and the world.

"This World Cup is going to be different," Gulati said. "Having it in South Africa is going to give it a special identity and it's an event we should all be looking forward to."

With concerns over the possibility of the 2010 World Cup not being played in South Africa put to rest, fans across the world can start to focus their energies on the countdown. There are less than 20 months to go and early indications are that it is going to be worth the wait.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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