The 2010 World Cup begins on June 10, when Mexico challenges South Africa in Soccer City Stadium in southwest Johannesburg, near the historic Soweto township. Thirty-two teams from around the world that have survived the qualifying rounds will contend for a share of the $17.6 million in prize money. However, even as the soccer stadiums project the image of a “new” South Africa, questions remain about the considerable infrastructure upgrades needed to raise the standard of living for millions of people.

More importantly, the players will compete for bragging rights in the world’s most popular sport. Where the championship trophy will reside for the next four years is a big deal. For the game’s itinerant superstars, accustomed to big paychecks from Europe’s top clubs, fans’ respect back home is a motivator without a price tag.

For sports-mad South Africa, the stakes are higher still.

The month-long tournament is a chance to show the world the country is ready for prime time, coming into its own after the long nightmare of apartheid ended in 1994.

In 2002, after the Fédération International de Football Association (FIFA) selected Germany as the site of the 2006 World Cup, South Africa was determined to convince the association it was worthy of hosting the 19th World Cup in 2010. FIFA agreed it was time to bring the competition to the African continent for the first time and chose South Africa over bids from Egypt and Morocco.

Pitches to FIFA

The winner presented FIFA 10 venues in nine cities and offered to refurbish and expand five existing facilities and build five new ones.

The government’s five-year, $50-billion national infrastructure-upgrade commitment, backed by similar investment plans by the private sector, helped seal the deal. The build-out covers a broad base of improvements across several sectors: power, water and wastewater treatment, transportation, communications and public safety.

The first match and the championship will take place in the 94,700-seat structure formerly known as FNB Stadium, which is now the largest soccer facility in Africa.

The expansion included the addition of 99 suites, the most prominent among them being the spacious presidential box high above the midfield line. Architect Boogertman + Partners, Johannesburg, in collaboration with Kansas City-based sports specialists Populous, designed an African motif based on the calabash pot. Laminated fiber-reinforced concrete panels in earth and brick tones carry the theme.

At night, lighting around the base suggests a cooking fire.

South African/Dutch joint-venture general contractors Grinaker LTA/ Interbeton Ibhayi won the partial demolition, refurbishment and expansion contract tender for approximately $256 million, but structural-steel increases and unfavorable currency exchange rates between the rand and the euro pushed the price toward $300 million. Structural-steel supplier Cimolai SpA fabricated more than 4,000 tonnes of large tubular compression ring trusses and curved facade steel at its factory in Italy’s northeastern province of Pordenone.

There are open spaces in the structure’s exterior for natural light and ventilation. Banks of new floodlights hang...