Well Done, South Africa and Thank You!

From the opening concert at the Orlando Stadium, to the final burst of fireworks at Soccer City, the glory at this World Cup belonged not to Spain, but to South Africa.

A grubby final was snatched after 114 goalless minutes by Andres Iniesta’s well-taken effort allowing Spain to erupt in celebration at last. So often the underachievers, Iniesta is just one of a dozen world class La Rochas. It was interesting that the Barcelona element felt the need to parade the Catalan flag at the crucial, cup-lifting moment.

South Africa was supposed to be the divided country. Long accused of being incapable of hosting football’s greatest event, the teenagers of democracy got it together with gusto. While Spain may have outlasted the local hopefuls Bafana Bafana by some distance, did any country of the 32 experience a greater nation-building month than the hosts? Of course not! Spain will go home to their Basque/Castillian/Catalan nations with heads held high. But from where I sit, after nearly three months of travelling South Africa, this wasn’t about Spain 1, Netherlands 0. It was simply South Africa's victory.

When I set out on this epic journey, nobody had even heard of Paul the Octopus or Luis Suarez’s hand. The foreign press were harping on about bloodbaths, muggings, and unfinished infrastructure when I turned up in Durban for the Indaba 2010 Tourism conference on May 8. For the next month, it was all about denying the doom-mongers. Strangely, England’s training camp in Phokeng was not “a dump” as the British tabloids described it. It was finished on time and perfect for the job. You can’t blame the Bafokeng people for England’s appalling showing here.

Similarly, the roads and stadiums were near-perfect, not to mention, the brand new King Shaka airport, apart from lacking a parking warden, was pretty good too. Everywhere we traveled, foreign fans were ecstatic. Glad they had “taken the risk” of coming to deepest, darkest part of Africa. Were any wags mugged? Were any mugs wagged? Was anybody bitten by deadly snakes or murdered in their hotel beds? No!

Were the stadiums half-finished or half-empty? Not at the best supported World Cup since 1994. Did the fans come? Yes, despite the negative claptrap, over half a million travelled here. And they will return to encourage more to revisit this country, where whales, dolphins, elephants and lions can entertain as much as over-paid footballers, Diego Maradona or blind referees.

How many rugby/cricket World Cups or even Olympics have been this successful? How many times do you attend a major sports event to be struck not by the talent of the athletes, but by the quality of the fans, the service, or the sheer joy of being here? Not many. And now, no doubt, the tireless Danny Jordaan will receive apologies from everywhere. From The Sun to the New Zealand Herald, as the world realises that, actually, Africa does quite a good job when it comes to global events. Let’s count those retractions. No, not one!

But, there we were. After 64 matches in 10 perfect stadiums, a riveting open ceremony and a technically incredible closing show, Nelson Mandela even popped in to give us a wave. We had the fireworks lighting the sky over Soweto, the Spaniards adding the World Cup to their European crown, and the fans delighted to celebrate with them and their two flags. One winner. South Africa. Where unbuntu, that feeling of being part of a family, overwhelmed the plethora of yellow cards and cynical fouls.

Pre-tournament favourites Spain won this World Cup with less goals than any side has ever managed before - they hardly thrilled us, apart from when they surprisingly lost their opening game against modest Switzerland. Holland set out to kick them off the park and out of the country.

After the final, I found myself arguing with former Arsenal "star" Perry Groves over the merits of Spain and the football at this World Cup. From where they sat, they weren't thrilled. Philistines. Mourning for England, they missed the whole point. And it didn’t matter, because all around, the lamentable, lovable vuvuzelas were blowing, the locals were dancing, and South Africa, rather than Spain, was united in self-congratulation.

Finally, this quote from President Jacob Zuma, "When we won the rights to host the World Cup, we knew that working together we would be able to succeed. But, what has happened has exceeded our expectations. That is because of the role played by our people, the South Africans. They are the stars and champions of this tournament."

Exclusively by Neal Collins

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