Ernie Els: World Cup safety fears over-played

SAN DIEGO - Concerns over safety at the World Cup in South Africa have been over-played, according to former world number one golfer Ernie Els.

Several media reports have slammed the host country's high levels of crime but Els, one of South Africa's best-known sporting figures, felt security had improved considerably in the last decade.

"There are always safety concerns in any country but I don't believe it's to the point where it was (in South Africa) 10 years ago," Els told Reuters at the PGA Tour's San Diego Open on Friday.

"Ten years ago I would have been a little bit worried but I believe South Africans are standing together now and I think it's going to be one of the best ever (football World Cups).

"I was in South Africa for a month's holiday in December and for the first time since the changeover really, I felt the positive vibe," added the globe-trotting Els, a keen sports fan who also has homes in United States and Britain.

"I feel that black people, white people, Afrikaans speakers, English speakers, Xhosa speakers, everyone ... we have all become a nation now. It's just the spirit of the country right now. I've never seen it better.

VIOLENT CRIME

"It's almost a generation now since the (democratic) elections in 1994 so South Africa has come a long way and people realise how big economically this World Cup is going to be for the country."

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime, with 50 murders a day, more than the U.S. which has six times the population. More than 40,000 police are being mobilised to protect the World Cup tournament.

Els, a three-times major champion who has won more than 60 tournaments worldwide, felt spectators at June's football spectacular would be impressed by South Africa's infrastructure.

"The venues and the stadiums are unbelievable and all the airports have been redone," the 40-year-old said.

"Rugby is our number one sport for the whites but I think some of the rugby supporters don't know the scale of the football World Cup. This is almost as big as the Olympics.

"A lot of South Africans will be surprised by the mass of people coming down there. The only problem is the World Cup is being played in the winter so people aren't going to really see South Africa in all its glory," Els added with a smile.