Aside from a few maintenance men on the roof, one of Africa’s most beautiful stadiums now sits empty and forgotten in the Atlantic Ocean breezes. Less than five years after being built for the World Cup, the $600-million Cape Town Stadium is largely abandoned.
“This is available for private functions, birthday parties, weddings and anniversaries,” a tour guide cheerfully informed a handful of visitors recently as they wandered through the vast VIP suite where global celebrities and politicians once watched World Cup matches.
Even a walkway along the pitch, where soccer’s biggest superstars once played, is now available for corporate receptions.
There are few takers. Like most of South Africa’s former World Cup stadiums, this one is hemorrhaging money badly. The occasional Justin Bieber or Bon Jovi concert – along with the $4 tours for a few hundred visitors per week – is not nearly enough to cover its operating costs. The 55,000-seat stadium is losing an estimated $6-million to $10-million (U.S.) annually. Some residents have even suggested that it should be demolished to save money.
As Brazil gears up for the World Cup this week, South Africa’s experience is a cautionary tale. Its brief moment in the global spotlight as the World Cup host country in 2010 was a big boost to national pride and tourism – but it also left a costly legacy of white-elephant stadiums that it still struggles to support.
“It’s really sad,” said Ingo Capraro, a retired Cape Town journalist who brought his visiting relatives on a tour of the stadium. “It’s one of the most beautiful stadiums in the world, and it’s not being used. It’s terrible.”
South Africa spent about $1.8-billion to construct and renovate six stadiums for the World Cup – more than 10 times higher than originally estimated. The price was hugely inflated by bid-rigging and collusion among the construction companies, which added nearly $400-million in unnecessary costs. (An official investigation led to $150-million in fines against the construction companies last year.)
Almost all of the stadiums are losing money annually because they cannot cover their heavy operating costs.
The stadium costs were further inflated by hundreds of millions of dollars because FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, refused to allow some South African cities – including Cape Town and Durban – to use their existing stadiums for the World Cup.
It’s a perennial problem. Eager to win the rights to the prestigious tournament, the host countries agree to FIFA’s terms – and then they are burdened with massive costs and perennial operating expenses for the stadiums.
Brazil, where the World Cup opens on June 12, has spent about $3.6-billion on six new stadiums and six renovated stadiums. The cost is four times greater than originally estimated.
Russia, the host of the 2018 World Cup, plans to spend $3.8-billion on new stadium construction. Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, plans to spend $3-billion on stadiums. Judging by past experience, the final price tag could be much higher when the projects are finished.
In Cape Town, authorities wanted to renovate an existing stadium, Athlone Stadium, to host the World Cup matches. This stadium is located in an impoverished district, Cape Flats, that could have benefited economically from the project. Hosting some of the World Cup matches there would have been a symbolically important gesture, since the working-class black population of Cape Flats is similar to the majority of soccer fans in the country. (White middle-class South Africans are more likely to attend rugby or cricket matches.)
Cape Town also offered to renovate a rugby stadium, Newlands, to serve as its World Cup venue. The Athlone or Newlands options would have been far cheaper than building a completely new stadium.
But FIFA insisted on a new stadium on Cape Town’s spectacular waterfront – largely to make the matches more attractive to its global television audience. “A billion television viewers don’t want to see shacks and poverty,” one FIFA delegate told the local officials, according to a report in a leading South African newspaper.
So the city was forced to tear down an existing waterfront stadium and build a new stadium on the same site – an inaccessible site for many black soccer fans from the townships who cannot afford the cost of travelling there.
Cape Town Stadium soon fell into disuse after the World Cup, except for occasional pop concerts and local soccer matches. One local team, Ajax Cape Town, agreed to hold its matches at the stadium, but it attracted only a few thousand fans – filling less than 10 per cent of the 55,000 seats. In March, the team announced it was moving out of the stadium because it was too costly and the pitch was in poor condition.
On a recent afternoon in Cape Town, six men could be seen on the stadium roof, retouching the paint and getting rid of the rust that constantly accumulates from the sea-salt in the breeze. It takes six weeks to clean the whole thing, and then they start again.
City officials say they are constantly bidding for events to hold at the stadium, but they rarely succeed. They have tried to attract rugby teams to the stadium, but those teams still prefer their traditional Newlands home.
The website for Cape Town Stadium currently lists only a single scheduled event: a concert by the pop group One Direction in April 2015.
The same massive waste of money was suffered by Durban, where FIFA insisted on the construction of a new $380-million waterfront stadium even though an existing 55,00-seat rugby stadium next door to the site and could have been easily expanded for the World Cup. After the World Cup ended, the rugby team refused to move to the new stadium, saying it could not afford the rent.
In both Cape Town and Durban, the irony is that the old stadiums are still much more popular and heavily attended than the new World Cup stadiums.
“It was obvious that there was no need for a new stadium in either Cape Town or Durban,” a report by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies concluded. “It is quite clear that the cities and their citizens have not seen any economic benefits from the venues, and therefore the sporting legacy of the event is highly questionable.”