CAPE TOWN, South Africa - FIFA president Sepp Blatter claims he danced for joy after arriving in South Africa to check on preparations for the 2010 World Cup.
Glossing over concerns about delays, rising costs, rampant crime and lack of transportation, Blatter visited Cape Town's new "jewel" of a stadium Monday, which was long beset by political wrangling and industrial action but which is now slightly ahead of schedule.
He was less flattering about the national football team, which failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, seems likely to miss out on the 2010 African Nations Cup and hasn't won any of its last five matches - including losing to lowly Guinea - since June.
Blatter said South Africa should have taken advantage of the four years since it was awarded the hosting rights in 2004 to build up a strong side.
"In 1996 they were African Champions ... and where are they now? It's incredible and I cannot understand that," he said. "Do something, move it."
Blatter said he would raise his concerns with the South African Football Association on Tuesday, when he tours the venue for the opening and final match at Johannesburg's Soccer City and meets anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, whose lobbying helped bring the tournament to South Africa.
Blatter stressed his trip was a courtesy visit rather than an official inspection. He played down fears that the ongoing turmoil in South Africa's ruling party, pitting incumbent president Thabo Mbeki against his likely successor Jacob Zuma, could have repercussions for the World Cup if key ministers involved in the preparation are sacked.
"We are absolutely not concerned about the internal political problems in South Africa," Blatter said. "We are going to organize and deliver this World Cup and it will be a great, great event."
For Blatter, the success of the 2010 tournament has become a personal crusade. He says he hopes that it will create an enduring legacy to benefit millions of people on the continent.
"When I left the plane and arrived on African soil, I started dancing," the 72-year-old Swiss told reporters at a news conference with Mbeki late Sunday.
He may need to muster his nimblest footwork to avoid the many obstacles.
Top of the list is public transport. Or rather the lack of it.
The government has set aside 13.6 billion rands (C$1.8 billion) to improve rail and road links in venue cities. Organizers hope the much-vaunted and hugely expensive Gautrain connecting Johannesburg's international airport with the city centre will be ready in time, but there is nothing similar planned for either Cape Town or Durban.
In an interview with a local radio program, FIFA general-secretary Jerome Valcke made soothing noises about the government's ability to rein in violent crime in a country where more than 50 people are killed each day, often for as little as a cellphone.
"I am not so much concerned by security today. I think we are going the right way," he said, adding that it was impossible to be 100 per cent safe even in cities like Paris and Zurich. He said local organizers were working closely with Interpol and foreign police and security forces to keep out hooligans.
The government plans to increase police numbers to 190,000 by the time of the tournament, and points out that other major events like the rugby and cricket world cups passed off without serious incident. Police and the armed forces have also staged a number of high-profile dress rehearsals to prove they can protect South Africa's skies and seas from potential attack.
FIFA's accommodation agent MATCH has so far secured less than half the 55,000 rooms it needs for visitors and plans to step up marketing efforts to persuade hotel and guest house owners to sign up. South Africa has 80,000 graded rooms - more than enough to satisfy FIFA, according to government figures. Although there is plenty of accommodation in tourist centres like Cape Town and Durban and the economic hub of Johannesburg, rooms may be hard to find in more outlying areas like the northern town of Polokwane.
Earlier concerns about the speed of stadium construction have eased. The stadium in the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth will not be ready for the 2009 Confederations Cup but should be ready for 2010.
Work is ahead slightly ahead of schedule at Durban's semifinal venue, and at the two stadiums in Johannesburg. Valcke said that even Beijing's "Bird Nest" Olympic stadium looked small compared to Soccer City. Even Cape Town's 3.9 billion rand (C$515 million) stadium - the most controversial because it is in the middle of prime real estate - is on track.
Cape Town mayor Helen Zille said the 68,000-seat semifinal arena would be the "world's most spectacular stadium in the world's most spectacular city."
The big unpredictable factor remains the weather, given that it will be winter. Temperatures are near freezing at night in Johannesburg; gales and torrential rain are buffeting Cape Town and even balmy Durban feels distinctly chilly. Valcke conceded that it would be a challenge to persuade supporters to stay and celebrate in frigid fan parks at night.
South Africa's last white president, F.W. de Klerk, joined Blatter's entourage in wet and windy weather to visit the muddy Cape Town stadium site. De Klerk, who helped steer in multiracial democracy in 2004, said the nation was united behind the success of the World Cup.
"All of us want 2010 to recapture the spirit of 1994 when we launched the new South Africa," he said.