A World Cup and suddenly, a new hope

A World Cup and suddenly, a new hope

South Africa’s triumph in being host to the World Cup can no longer be questioned. The cost and the lasting effect, however, are yet to be determined. Every day and every night during the Cup, the South African Broadcasting Corporation had called on its people to “feel it, it is here.” And they did, overwhelmingly.

But let’s be clear. The success in staging a 32-nation tournament involving 64 games in 10 new or renovated stadiums will be paid for by South Africans. FIFA, the global stakeholder for soccer, will get to take the $3.2 billion it made on this Cup to its banks in Zurich before it takes its ball to Brazil for the next tournament, in 2014.

Regardless of what FIFA claims to have done for Africa, football’s governing body keeps the television and sponsorship income, while the host pays the bills for an event that puts it on stage for a month.

No one can put a price on the remarkable coming together of people here, both black and white, to sustain the tournament. The triumph reaches down to the volunteers who freely gave their time to be involved in a once-in-a-lifetime happening. Their can-do spirit helped them overcome obstacles that the leaders never get to see. It would never have worked without them.

FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, promised Africa its World Cup, and he delivered. He has toured the land with the South African president, Jacob Zuma, promising to fix the ills of a continent through the power of sport. Their double act has been like the Three Tenors, without the harmony.

Blatter called his mission ‘football for hope.’ Zuma urged world business leaders to see what South Africa was capable of doing and “bring billions of dollars to these shores for investment.” One Cup, two missions, on behalf of 48 million South Africans and, according to the slogans, the whole continent of Africa.

We cannot, alas, ask Nelson Mandela how this event measures up to what he had in mind 15 years ago. It was after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and during the 1996 African Nations Cup soccer event, that Mandela said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

I heard it here in Soweto. More important, Blatter and his then boss, Joao Havelange, heard it. The rhythms then came through drums and singing, but definitely not vuvuzelas. That rhetoric of Mandela, now almost 92 and in frail health, was taken up by a younger African National Congress activist, Danny Jordaan.

As chief executive for this World Cup, Jordaan is concluding two decades of striving to make Mandela’s vision a reality. On the eve of the final on Sunday, Jordaan said: “It has not just been about people coming here to discover South Africa — it was South Africans discovering themselves. And we needed this World Cup to do that.”

“We bid for the 2004 Olympics, and we lost,” he added. “We bid for the 2006 World Cup, and we lost. Now we have staged the most important of them all, and we have succeeded. My work is finished.”

Mandela’s legacy may not be finished yet. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, is here, and Rogge cannot fail to hear the call of Africa, of Durban in particular, to bring the Summer Games to the continent.

Ke Nako
As Mandela also said, ‘Ke Nako’ — it is time.
The actual football early on was a struggle, as teams played cautiously and South Africa’s team, Bafana Bafana, became the first host ever to be eliminated in the opening round. Players blamed the ball, the conditions and tiredness for their mediocrity.

France, Italy and England left without leaving a trace that they are, or were, great soccer nations. Argentina flattered to deceive. Brazil fell trying to be more pragmatic than its traditional beauty foretells. But we had Spain and the Netherlands as deserving finalists, each adapting to the surroundings.

There was also, significantly, a new Germany. Its ethnic diversity, drawn from the sons of immigrants from Africa, Asia, elsewhere in Europe and South America, was itself a revelation.

There have been many revelations this past month. On Saturday, walking south of a suburb 25 km from central Johannesburg, I stopped to watch kids playing barefoot on rough ground beside tin-roof shacks. It was not a township; it didn’t possess the water and electric lighting of Alexandra and Soweto.

The ball came my way, and I made a hash of returning it. I blamed the Jabulani ball! The kids laughed, and challenged the stranger to try again. We played a little, laughed a lot, and an older couple invited me to their home.

My cellphone rang as we walked toward the shack, with its Bafana Bafana poster on the wall. “Don’t answer it,” I was advised. “You’ll draw attention to yourself.”

They suggested a drink. Where? In the shebeen, a shed like the rest. Nobody let me pay; in fact, I saw nobody pay. Midmorning, I suggested, was a bit early for beer. Laughter again. Food poisoning concerns crossed my mind, but how do you refuse hospitality? I drank from the bottle, a bottle with no brand name.

This was natural friendliness, and curiosity. When I made my excuses that it was time to go, the couple walked me back to the road. How far you come, man? I said it was about five miles.

Hey, said the guy who had told me to put the phone out of sight, you need a taxi. He whipped a cellphone out of his pocket. We looked at each other, and parted with more laughter.

I never did find a taxi. But walking along the road, passing fine houses with high fortress walls, electrified fencing, menacing dogs and ‘armed response’ notices, I felt like the shacks were the happier, freer places.

One World Cup cannot fix the gap between rich and poor, nor the suspicions built up through apartheid rule before Mandela’s release. Speaking right after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela filled the same Soccer City Stadium where world leaders and celebrities converged on Sunday.

The South Africans now have to get back to normal living. Their friendship, enthusiasm, and efficiency is its own legacy.Did crime just take a monthlong vacation? Or was reporting of it just less prevalent? And will the country be better off, worse off or just the same after the circus moves out? Only South Africans will know the answer.

“This successful World Cup is a statement to ourselves that we have the capacity to change,” Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, said last week. “We have shown that the perception that Africans are less human than other races is quite wrong.”

The country, in collaboration with sport, has shown for a month that past prejudices are surmountable. To imagine that a month of soccer has changed anything for life is another matter.

We felt it — it was here. But it moves on now to Brazil, 2014.

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