- Associated Press - Monday, July 12, 2010

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - On the field of play, South Africa fared worse than any host nation in World Cup history. Off the field, it was a resounding winner, overcoming past strife and present troubles to charm the world with pluck, hard work and warmth.

The pre-tournament skeptics abroad _ who forecast crime and chaos _ had to swallow their words. At home, black and white South Africans joined together as never before, sharing pride in their formerly fractured country and marveling at the world’s embrace.

“We have bedazzled ourselves, and the world, with our warmth, efficiency, beauty and our promise,” said retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his fight against apartheid. “Never before have we experienced this overwhelming joy of unity in purpose.”

It was the first World Cup held in Africa _ and the biggest global gathering ever in a country that for decades was isolated by a sports boycott over its racist laws and white-minority government.

FIFA head Sepp Blatter, an early champion of bringing the tournament to Africa, gave the South African organizers a grade of 9 out 10 _ “summa cum laude” _ and said their nation had “responded brilliantly” to its role as host.

Blatter closed FIFA’s wrap-up news conference Monday with a tribute to Nelson Mandela, the former political prisoner and South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, who made a brief stadium appearance before Sunday night’s championship match won by Spain over the Netherlands.

“He brought this World Cup to Africa,” Blatter said. “He wanted to be there yesterday to see his dream come true.”

The success of the tournament seemed to amaze even the die-hard optimists, prompting them to wonder how the nation can sustain the momentum for other purposes.

“We have been able to show the world that we have what it takes to compete at the highest level, united in our diversity.” said President Jacob Zuma.

Visitors who came apprehensively “discovered that we are a winning nation of very humble, hospitable people,” he said.

Well, not always humble. White and black, Asian, mixed-race _ they tooted their plastic vuvuzelas, flew the gaudy South African flag from their cars and homes, and donned hats, scarves and jerseys in the electric yellow of their national team, Bafana Bafana. And even when the team was ousted after the opening round in a first for a World Cup host, the enthusiasm and solidarity remained.

Many of the advance news stories highlighted South Africa’s high rate of violent crime, implying that visitors should be on constant guard. It turned out that crime related to the tournament was minuscule, and the national police commissioner, Gen. Bheki Cele, lauded his security forces.

“The bad thing that you have done is that you have created a standard that you need to maintain,” he said. “Make sure that when the visitors are gone, South Africans are safe.”

Also unrealized were fears of rampant hooliganism and crowd-control problems. The worst security breaches were an intruder in the English team’s dressing room in Cape Town, and two men who ran onto the field, one at Germany-Spain semifinal in Durban, and the other just before the final at Johannesburg’s Soccer City.

The 10 stadiums, some new and others renovated, won praise, although there were traffic backups that caused some fans to be late reaching their seats.

Perhaps the worst logistical fiasco _ with harsh but limited consequences _ occurred at the Durban airport on the day of the Germany-Spain game, when private jets caused congestion that prevented some larger commercial planes from landing. About 700 fans missed some or all of the match.

Across the ideological spectrum, South African politicians, civic leaders and news media hailed the tournament as a defining moment for their country _ on the scale of Mandela’s election as president in 1994.

“It was a coming of age for South Africa, 16 years old and now the darling of the planet,” said The Star, a Johannesburg daily. “It was Africa shouting out for a chance to show just what Africans could do. … They delivered and then some.”

The tournament attracted about 400,000 foreign visitors, although final figures remain to be compiled. FIFA said 3.18 million fans attended the 64 matches _ the third- highest overall for a World Cup.

The success of the tournament won’t chase away South Africa’s many daunting problems: a jobless rate above 25 percent; a stubborn HIV/AIDS epidemic; a glaring gap because the wealthy and the legions of poor; schools in black townships so bad that many students make long commutes in crowded vans to schools in traditionally white neighborhoods.

Thus the euphoria already is accompanied by questions about the future _ namely, how can South Africa harness the World Cup enthusiasm and solidarity to tackle its long-term problems.

“Our collective challenge is clear,” said Danny Jordaan, chief of the local organizing committee. “To keep the spirit of 2010 alive, to nurture the flame of unity and self-confidence, to ensure this precious light illuminates our country for year to come.”

One possible bonus was confirmed Monday by top sports officials: The well-run World Cup could embolden South Africa to make a serious bid for the Summer Olympics in 2020 or 2024.

Blatter has already given his endorsement.

“If a country can host the World Cup, they can host the Summer Olympics,” he said last week.

One interested observer as this tournament unfolded was Brazil, host of the 2014 World Cup. It confronts several of the same challenges South Africa faced: high crime rates, a huge disparity between rich and poor, even longer distances between cities with sports venues, and a need for extensive new infrastructure.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited South Africa toward the end of the tournament.

“We now have tremendous responsibility on our shoulders,” he said. “But we are confident that we will present a World Cup as beautiful as this one.”

For the continent of Africa, which brimmed with pride at finally getting to host a World Cup, the tournament was a letdown in competitive terms. Five of the six African teams failed to reach the second round. But South Africans _ and fans across the continent _ rallied behind Ghana, which reached the quarterfinals before an agonizing shootout loss to Uruguay.

Jomo Sono, a coach and formerly one of South Africa’s greatest players, said he hoped the excitement kindled across racial lines by the World Cup might encourage more South African whites to get engaged in domestic soccer rather than cheer from afar for European teams.

“We must keep this momentum going,” he said. “To me the biggest bonus of the World Cup is seeing a united South Africa.”

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