The race for the cup

South Africa's desire to host the World Cup is spurred by hard facts

On the way from the airport into Cape Town, I notice that the squatter camps, which so shock first-time visitors, are slowly shrinking. Life in the huddled rows of shacks, made of corrugated iron, wooden crates, cardboard and whatever else comes to hand, is even harsher than life in Gugulethu township, which has a community sports centre and real houses. Squatters' camps - pardon me, I should say "informal settlements" - are an embarrassment to the new South Africa. Now, they are being moved away from the motorway so that football fans won't feel bad when they fly in for the 2010 World Cup.

But many squatters don't want to go. So, just as in the bad old days, there are forced removals to out-of-sight locations. Long-promised housing is being built for indigent "previously disadvantaged people", but in some cases the new buildings stand empty lest they be damaged before 2010.

In a land where white people are worried that Thabo Mbeki will turn into Robert Mugabe, and Mbeki wonders how to get 90 per cent of the wealth out of the hands of 11 per cent of the population without appearing to be Mugabe, could it be that hosting the World Cup is an offer he should have refused?

A leaked report by the ruling ANC, meant for the government's eyes only, warns that soaring unemployment, poverty and violent crime threaten the stability of this new democracy. The government is financing major and wonderful changes here, but many think every available rand should be thrown at these social problems.

Instead, it has been deemed necessary to hire a big-name coach so that South Africa can field a national team that is no disgrace. In a country where a rural brickie takes home £10 a day, the £1.5m salary plus perks of the incoming coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, is on a par with David Beckham's five-year £128m US deal. And Parreira's fee is a smidgen of what the whole contest will cost cash-strapped South Africa.

None the less, staging it is the right decision because the bottom line is race. South Africa's leaders want to put what is seen here as the African game on the map in Africa. Why? To level the psychological playing field, bolstering black South Africa's sense of self by putting its sporting culture on the world stage. One thing the ANC and the racists agree on is that, in South Africa, football is a black sport.

To an outsider, that may seem odd - especially as, until a couple of decades ago, black players in top-level UK football were rare, and those who did appear endured not only bananas hurled from the crowd but also racist "analyses" by TV pundits. Nor has any black player in Britain become the public's Great Hero.

It is easier to understand the South African point of view if, for race, you read "class". Remember the pre-1990 World Cup era, when football was working class? Well, in South Africa, football is played and supported largely by black South Africans, the economically depressed majority. Matches are shown on terrestrial TV, whereas rugby, which has a predominantly white audience, is broadcast almost exclusively to subscribers via satellite.

In the small village in the Karoo where I am staying, a retired professor who has never said anything else racist in my hearing told me that rugby has few black players because the rules of the game are much more complicated than football's, and that black players can't - well, I won't finish the sentence. Views like his are what gets the South African government's dander up.

Hunter Davies is away