One Small Voice

2009-02-13 00:00

BY any measure, Barcelona ranks among the leading sporting cities in the world: the unqualified success of the 1992 summer Olympic Games raised its international profile to an unprecedented level, and the prominence is sustained by the continuing glamour and success of the football club.

Such status is immensely valuable, generating hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars per annum through massively increased levels of tourism, incoming conferences and major events. In 2009, it has become abundantly clear that sport really does move people, both physically and emotionally.

This is the kind of opportunity beckoning SA’s three main cities — Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban — in the years following this country’s hosting of the Fifa World Cup next year.

For so long scorned as a grim slum with its back turned to the sea, Barcelona has emerged as a chic, strong, elegant and compact destination. Barely a 20-minute stroll takes you from the bustling cafes and boutiques of the central Las Ramblas to Montjuic, a mountain soaked in sporting history. The winding streets wrapped around its slopes staged the Spanish Grand Prix during the late 1960s (the F1 race is now held at the Circuit de Catalunya on the outskirts of the city) and its summit was chosen as the site of the 1992 Olympic Park, incorporating the main stadium, the indoor Palau Saint Jordi and the Picornell swimming complex.

A 15-minute ride on the efficient metro system leads to the spiritual heart of the city, the Camp Nou, home of FC Barcelona and the largest stadium in Europe, where capacity crowds of 98 000 regularly assemble to watch their beloved Barca honour the inheritance of free, fearless, flowing football.

“Mes que un club” (more than a club) runs the motto, reflecting the team’s status as symbol of the spiritually independent and fiercely proud region of Catalunya. Indeed, through 35 years of oppression under General Franco, the Camp Nou was the only place where citizens were permitted to speak Catalan, their native language, and, as such, the vast and cavernous stadium became conjunctive to the civic soul.

Two weeks ago, the city celebrated the formal opening of a new jewel in its sporting crown, when the Barca first team moved from its historical training centre in the shadow of the stadium to the brand new Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, a breathtaking spectacle four kilometres to the north.

The steel gates are appropriately imposing, designed to draw the breath of any young player arriving for the first time, and, having survived the scrutiny of another sense-of-humour-free Catalan manning the security desk, it is impossible not be unequivocally impressed by the quality of the facilities.

Constructed at a cost of R800 million, the complex includes a 12-storey office block for administration, a four-storey block dedicated to every imaginable need of Messi, Bojan, Pujol, Henry and the rest of the first team squad, an extensive building dedicated to the B team, plus no fewer than five grass pitches, four artificial turf pitches and a special area to train goalkeepers.

The first team training field is raised 14 feet above ground level, shielded from any prying eyes by lines of dense evergreen trees on all sides and accessed via a ramp. On Wednesday this week, with most of his leading players away on international duty, coach Pep Guardiola presided over a mixed A and B squad training session, standing among an army of no fewer than 22 intently-focused, tracksuited staff.

Worthwhile lessons lie amid such excellence.

Far to the south, in a very different world, the respective city councils of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are currently squeezing every last rand out of their fast-depleting budgets as they continue preparations to welcome the world for 30 days in 2010.

There is no lack of urgent needs in Africa, education, health and housing to name three, but now is not the time for officials to scrimp and save on sporting infrastructure.

The 2010 Fifa World Cup presents these three cities with a unique opportunity to use sport and to seize an international profile. The experience of Barcelona suggests every cent spent wisely will yield a dollar in return.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SABC sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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