South Africa was real World Cup winner

In the fifth instalment of's year-end retrospective, senior writer John F. Molinaro looks back at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and how the biggest sports event in the world unified a country and an entire continent.

Tournament boosted national pride, unified a continent

July 11, 2010.

It's morning in Johannesburg. The sun hasn't quite risen. The streets are empty. The stores are closed. Everybody is still asleep.

A car carrying four CBC Sports reporters pulls onto the highway and begins its long trek towards Soccer City Stadium. Someone turns on the radio. Music plays. It's Shakira's Waka Waka. The song rambles on without any of the passengers taking notice, but as the car picks up speed, Shakira's words begin to sink in, especially the chorus.

"This time for Africa."

At that exact moment, the car speeds past a huge highway billboard reading, "Today, this is the most important place in the world."

Indeed, it was.

What about the soccer?

South Africa witnessed the birth of soccer's new world order, one with a spectacularly bright red tinge.

Spain finally put a half-century of underachievement behind it as Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal to propel La Furia Roja, the Red Fury, to a 1-0 extra-time win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final in Johannesburg on July 11.

Iniesta's brilliant finish in the 116th minute served as the stiff wind that swelled the sails of the Spanish armada, navigating the sturdy vessel through choppy Dutch waters before arriving at its final port of call — the promised land and a historic World Cup title.

Spain became only the eighth World Cup winner in the 80-year history of the storied competition, entering the hallowed halls of soccer's pantheon where it joins Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy and Uruguay.

Spain's victory was a long time coming.

The Spaniards qualified for 12 World Cups before this one but managed to advance beyond the quarter-finals only once, in 1950. Its lone international success prior to winning Euro 2008 was in 1964 when it won the European Championship on home soil.

But nobody could possibly doubt Spain's credentials now — not after they rebounded from a shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland in the first round to sweep all before them en route to the final where they dispatched a dour Dutch side.

History, of course, records Spain as the 2010 FIFA World Cup champions, and the stylish Spaniards were certainly worthy winners. Armed with a galaxy of stars and tiki-taka — the name given to its fast-paced, entertaining and elegant attacking style of play — Spain reaffirmed that soccer is still "the beautiful game."

But the real winner was South Africa, which proved all of the doubters wrong by staging an event the magnitude and size of the World Cup, and who for the first time in the post-Apartheid era gained acceptance and legitimacy in the eyes of the global sports community.

The announcement in May 2004 that South Africa would host the competition was immediately met by a typical colonialist attitude from the Western world, mixed in with a healthy dose of Afro-pessimism.

How could a country still tainted by the lingering memories of racial segregation, and blighted by a spiralling crime rate, possibly pull it off? But South Africa met the challenge, efficiently hosting a 64-match tournament without any major hitches, while at the same time warmly and hospitably welcoming soccer fans from around the world.

Six months removed, debate continues to rage over the merits of the cost of the World Cup (the South African government spent $4.7 billion US on the tournament), especially in light of declining standards in hospitals and schools in South Africa, coupled with a massive housing shortage.

But the World Cup provided a major boost to national pride in South Africa and gave it a much-needed image makeover, while at the same time changing public perception about the country. You can't put a price on that.

Nor can you put a price on what the World Cup meant to Africa as a whole.

Africa's faint hope of seeing its own World Cup champion crowned on home soil came to a dramatic end on July 2 with Ghana's 4-2 penalty shootout loss to Uruguay, a result that meant the last African team was eliminated from the tournament.

For the briefest of moments, it looked as though the Black Stars would become the first African nation to reach the semifinals in the 80-year history of the competition.

Ghana was on the cusp of greatness with a continent holding its collective breath when it was awarded a penalty kick in the dying seconds. But the occasion proved to be too much for Asamoah Gyan, the Ghanaian striker, who belted his penalty attempt off the crossbar.

Gyan's missed shot seemed to encapsulate the history of Africa: so close to stepping out from under the patronage of its continental neighbours while at the same time unable to emerge from the shadows long cast over it.

It was a heartbreaking moment, but Ghana's demise did little to dim the enthusiasm and sense of African pride among the locals.

Two days after the Uruguay match, hundreds swarmed the streets of Soweto — one of the key battlegrounds in the fight against apartheid — as the Ghanaian team visited the historic township in an expression of its appreciation for the support it received from South African fans.

"They have unified Africa," said Bonsile Mvubu, a Soweto resident in her early 20s. "When they scored a goal, the vuvuzelas were sounding off here. [People on mopeds] were spinning their wheels in celebration.

"If that doesn't say how united were are. … They honestly united us. And I think they deserve the title the Black Stars of Africa. God bless them."

Africa is a unique place. It's a massive land with a diverse people, countless languages and different cultures. As a result, Pan-Africanism remains little more than a dream.

But for one month, South Africa threw off the shackles of its ugly history and unified the entire continent.

And that, with all due respect to the silky skills of the sublime Spaniards, is the true legacy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.