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Monday, July 12, 2010
It's been great, South Africa. Cheers

Posted by John Brewin

JOHANNESBURG -- The month is over, and the world has a new champion. With Spain, an eighth name has entered the footballing pantheon, and a nation rejoices while the rest of the world -- that is not Dutch -- politely applauds.

For those of us fortunate enough to have covered the tournament from start to finish, a time of long drives, equally long waits, bleary mornings and some hugely substandard stadium food is at an end. But your scribe would not swap a minute of it. On returning home, one will have to measure my own perceptions of South Africa 2010 against those of others, most of whom will have viewed the tournament through the fish-eye lens of domestic television coverage or the prism of the written media.

Before I allow my views to be affected by those of others, I will proffer some of my own reflections as I soak in the morning after the night before. It's another bleary one.

Perception versus reality: Months of scare stories about security, crime and potential disease can wear a man down. No amount of rationalizing about how people live and work in Johannesburg every day could prevent trepidation upon my entry to South Africa. My host for the tournament later described me as having a "petrified" look on my arrival after a drive across a city labeled the most dangerous in the world by the likes of Louis Theroux and, rather unhelpfully, by the local man sat next to me on the plane from London. A month on and I am not alone in wondering what I was worried about. Sure, a driver needs to be wary, and there have been isolated incidents of crime. But not on the scale of the long-predicted apocalypse for fans and journalists that supposedly awaited us. Someone, somewhere, has made an awful lot of money from the security business during this tournament. As I was told by a South African emigre back in London, if you live by the rules here -- those of caution and common sense -- you should be just fine.

Feathering the nest: Few could blame the South African populace for wanting to cash in on a bonanaza that might only be repeated when hosting an Olympics. There were some ludicrous nightly rates for hotels until right before the tournament, and these continued for those booking last-minute. But once here, this is not an expensive place to subsist, with food and drink far less expensive than in Europe and America. The real ripoffs lay in those places and planes tied into FIFA's pet travel company, as run by Sepp Blatter's son-in-law. And mention must be made of the exclusion zones placed around stadia to deny street vendors, very much a part of South African life. While a $1.4 billion profit was trousered, what actual benefit to a local economy that serves the lowest strata of society was set down in this churlish denial?

Stadium culture: Ticket prices, meanwhile, excluded much of the black population -- a group that is, for the greater part, soccer fans -- to often leave stadia full of touristy types, fans perhaps watching their first games. And the allocation of later games was odd, with Durban's semifinal seeing fans of both Germany and Spain placed together, which meant that the atmosphere lacked partisanship. The vuvuzela will long be whinged about, especially by those who were too close to one being blown, but without them, this observer is convinced that many a match would have had no atmosphere at all.

The superstar syndrome: When will the advertising world learn that high finance and profile does not mean high class on the global scale? And when will putative stars learn that if anything is going to set them up for a fall, it is appearing in a high-production advertisement? This tournament proved that World Cup success is delivered by teams and not individuals, and the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi failed as their teams did, with the first two performing nowhere near their club standards. Two less marketable players, Diego Forlan and Andres Iniesta, took the eventual plaudits; two players who are professionals first and marketable commodities second.

Written off too early: A drab first set of matches had critics prematurely reaching for the brickbats while ignoring the fact that most coaches set the target of not losing their first game. Irony indeed, then, that a team that lost its first match went on to win the whole thing. The Jabulani, the location, the pitches were all blamed, and then largely forgotten once the competition began in earnest with a set of rousing encounters.

A club mentality is a strong mentality: If we set aside the horrors of their final encounter, an examination of the Spanish and Dutch show that continuity is key to success. The Netherlands made the most of its limited resources, while Spain made the most of the richness of its resources, with some suggesting it did not even reach its potential here. What the teams shared was a common purpose in which egos were set aside. Barcelona and Real Madrid might be one of the world's great rivalries, but that was sidelined by Spain in favor of a team ethic. England and France's collapses after ego-driven factions threw up irreparable fault lines showed just how not to do it. And good riddance to them, too.

This time for Africa? The legacy of this tournament for the hosts has been a significant improvement in infrastructure, with major roads improved and a number of freshly built stadia. We await to see how long such benefits will be reaped, but the real gift the South Africans gave to this tournament was their welcome. The enthusiasm and determination to prove themselves as hosts was incredibly heartening, and, though organization could often struggle, it was a far better policy to accept that everyone was doing their best and that problems would eventually be sorted out. The country has made many new friends.

Lessons learned? Brazil in 2014 will provide different challenges, but many similarities, too. Its social structure is similarly stretched all the way from ridiculous wealth to rank poverty, so FIFA and organizers must try harder to include the second group while winning the lucre of the first. And the touring nature of each team at a World Cup should be put to a stop. An England fan needed to travel from Rustenberg to Cape Town to Port Elizabeth to Bloemfontein just to watch his team disappoint. Groups should be awarded to a base, as used to happen at World Cups.

All ideas just jotted down on a Monday morning that seems empty without a World Cup. Normal life will soon be returned to, but the experiences shall be cherished forever. Farewell, South Africa, and thanks for having me.