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Saturday, 26 June 2010

WC2010: How SA dreamed the impossible dream

Organisers now face a tall order: to convince South Africans that playing host is as fun as playing to win.
Katlego Mphela of South Africa

South Africa's Katlego Mphela scores his side's second goal against France to raise hopes of an even greater adventure for Bafana Bafana – but it was not to be. Photograph: Dominic Barnardt/Getty Images

For a while they really did believe. When Katlego Mphela gave South Africa a 2-0 lead over 10-man France, then ran to fetch the ball with a sense of urgency, the entire nation held its breath and hoped.

"Unite in prayer, no matter your faith, creed or religion. The miracle is here," said one South African message on Twitter. Another tweet pleaded: "Come on Mexico, come on Bafana! Make dreams happen!!"

Much has been written about the miracle of the rainbow nation, the Nelson Mandela magic and the epic victory of the Springboks in the 1995 rugby World Cup. For a few precious minutes, with Uruguay also leading Mexico, South Africa was again dreaming an impossible dream.

It was not to be. France pulled a goal back and, as everyone dreaded, South Africa became the first hosts in 80 years of World Cup football not to make the second round. But unlike the French they went out not with a whimper, but a bang. The mood at fan parks was bittersweet, with muted cheers for the victory tempered by disappointment that the great adventure is over.

The instant reaction from Twitter was one of honour redeemed and heads held high. Frewbru said: "The dream's not over – we still have the world's attention and SA is the centre of the sports universe for another 3 big weeks!"

ThatLloyd tweeted: "Well done #BafanaBafana from your new & greatest fan I believed in you and I still believe in You *pat on the backs* guys you did us proud."

TarrynHarbour posted: "We WON. We STILL WON. Our 83rd-ranked team BEAT #FRA and DREW with #mex . See you in Brazil, world! LOVE YOU #BAFANA!!"

And one tweet said simply: "Mobileandy is proud to the point of tears."

But the immediate reaction of South African TV pundits was rather less effusive, noting the inconsistency of Bafana Bafana's performances throughout the tournament. Andre Arendse, a former South Africa goalkeeper, said the minimum target had been a place in the last 16, so this must go down as a failure: "What's happened is disappointing from a host-nation point of view."

But Arendse added: "We always said it's an African World Cup. We do encourage South Africans to keep supporting the World Cup now. I think they will, they're passionate about football. Adopt an African team."

It will not be easy. The first wave of Bafanamania that greeted the opening match was never going to last. There are fair-weather fans the world over, but South Africa's have a reputation as more fickle than most.

The stream of people heading for the stadium exit 10 minutes before the end of the defeat by Uruguay implied a low pain threshold. The momentum behind the national "Football Friday" also appears to have waned. For weeks more and more people had been wearing the yellow Bafana shirt to their offices. But last Friday many were back in plain shirts and winter coats.

Attendances at fan parks have also dropped since the huge and optimistic crowds that gathered on the first day. Today it was reported that vendors who spent big to be in fan parks are taking legal action in a bid to recoup heavy losses because business has been so slow.

On a more positive note, many cars in Johannesburg can be seen flying the flags of other African nations. Many South Africans will rally around their neighbours, of whom Ghana look the best bet. But if, as seems all too possible, all six African countries go out in the first round, they will have to look elsewhere.

A recent poll by the Times newspaper in South Africa found people in Johannesburg say they would switch allegiance to Portugal, Holland, Brazil, Argentina and England. In Cape Town, four had already defected to Spain, Argentina or Germany.

This World Cup has attracted many South Africans who normally don't go to football, and who may well be blowing vuvuzelas and soaking up the occasion rather than admiring tactical nuances. Like the British at Wimbledon going crazy for tennis for two weeks only, these football virgins might well pack up their vuvuzelas and go back to rugby.

That would leave the World Cup like a regular sports tournament, much as last year's Confederations Cup was after the hosts had been eliminated. It should run smoothly and efficiently but move from the front pages to the back, becoming less about Africa and more about Argentina, Brazil, Spain and the other usual suspects.

Fifa and the local organisers now face a tall order: to convince South Africans that playing host is as fun as playing to win. "We must be gracious and welcoming hosts," said The Times of South Africa. "At least, until the last camera crew, journalist, tourist and team leave South Africa. Let's make this a tournament of great African memories."

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