World Cup: Last Few Hours, from the Stands

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We’re in the last hours of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first in Africa, and as 94,000 fans of Spain and Holland assemble here at Soccer City, it seems appropriate to review what South Africa  has achieved in the last month.

First, look at where I am. Soccer City is in an open area of badly-lit wasteland and old gold mines sandwiched between Soweto and the city of Johannesburg. I’d been here a few times before the World Cup, and before June 11 this was not a place where I’d have considered walking the streets at night carrying a bag containing a laptop, two mobile phones and cash. I will after the game today; I’ll be among 94,000 other prime mugging targets. Before the tournament started, security was the prime concern for any fan. Today the crowds are so unbothered by safety, you have to keep reminding yourself where you are.

The actual soccer has been merely ok during the World Cup. Few stars delivered, there was some good and some terrible European play and, in a match that will be remembered with boiling anger for years across Africa, Uruguay was rewarded for cheating – hand-balling off the line – and knocked out Ghana.

The real action has been off the pitch. Hundreds of millions of fans watching news reports and live broadcasts have discovered a country of jubilant diversity capable of staging one the biggest, slickest tournaments in the history of sport. Inside South Africa, those 350,000 who made the trek here have gone from trepidation to surprise to elation. Again and again, I’ve seen perceptions transformed forever. At the fan party in the township outside the stadium in Phokeng; at the fan park in downtown Johannesburg — normally a nightime no-go area; at the opening concert at Orlando Stadium in Soweto proper; a crime level — around 100 incidents for the month — that would delight any European country; the England fans I met at the old apartheid prison of Robben Island off Cape Town, who’d been depressed by their team but restored by South Africa.

South Africa still has problems. It has the world’s biggest HIV/AIDS population and some of its widest inequality. In the past week, there have been persistent reports of a coming surge in crime and xenophobic violence that, it is said, will erupt once the last foreign fan and camera crew have safely left. Some also worry about the economic cost. (Though this seems misplaced. The local organizing committee says staging the World Cup cost about 38 billion rand, exactly the same as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has said the tournament has brought into South Africa.) These ongoing challenges have led some to predict a painful World Cup hangover.

I suspect there will be one, but not for those reasons. South Africans, after all, are used to struggle. What they’re not so used to is how they’ve been feeling for the last month: unified, joyous, capable, proud. Whoever wins tonight, South Africans already did. Who’d want that to end?