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The Games Will Go On

The latest football party is over but Andy Richardson looks at why South Africans can be excited about the future.
Last modified: 12 Feb 2013 21:32

It was very late on a Sunday night in Johannesburg. A couple of hours had passed since Nigeria's Cup of Nations triumph at South Africa's National Stadium. The last few gasps of vuvuezla tone could be heard in the distance and I was doing my best to talk coherently down the camera about the game I had just seen.

But my overwhelming thought was that these were the final few minutes of what had been an incredible few years in South Africa's sporting history.

In quick succession the world and then their own continent have been the country's guests.

The cynics who said Africa's first World Cup would be remembered for chaos and crime had been proven wrong. And when Libya had to step down as hosts of this year's Cup of Nations, South Africa were able to calmly step in at short notice.

Not everything has been perfect at this event. Some of the pitches seemed to have been prepared with a beach party in mind rather than a game of football. But the bigger picture is a positive one. Many fans here saying the World Cup in particular gave their once isolated land an official means of welcoming back the world.

But three years on from that World Cup, there are still some big questions out there. Can a government ever justify spending millions of dollars on stadiums when there are more pressing social needs? Can FIFA justify taking more than half a billion dollars worth of profit back to Europe from Africa's first World Cup?

Profit is not a word FIFA likes. Their Secretary General, Jerome Valcke, telling me the vast majority of money made from the World Cup will be re-invested in football.

"It's always the same discussion," Valcke says, "You FIFA, you are making a lot of money. You arrive somewhere, you demand tax exemption, you demand free use of all the facilities. But this is not money that goes into Blatter's pocket or my pocket. 80 per cent goes back into football. This game cannot save the world, the world is a hard place. But at least it can be used to make the lives of a certain number of people a bit better."

And there are some projects in South Africa where just that is happening. I caught up with coaches from the Grassroot Soccer charity working in Soweto. Here they use football as a means of getting local players through their doors, but also make sure the youngsters get advice on how to protect themselves from HIV. As far as they are concerned, the World Cup really did help to concentrate minds on the need for social as well as sporting change.

"Soccer and the World Cup gave us an opportunity to focus on something specific, get something done and deliver on it," says James Donald who is a Director at the charity.

"I think we learnt a lot in the process. Apartheid was a big clear thing we could all rally against and fight. But since then, we have developed a habit of of turning on each other more than anything else. Football was an opportunity to get something done together."

I asked supporters leaving the Cup of Nations final if they were feeling sad now it was all over.

The common reply was that while the World Cup might not be coming back anytime soon, plenty of other top class sport would be.

There is, they told me, international cricket, rugby and golf to look forward to and maybe their football team would qualify for the Brazil World Cup. This is a country where sport is pivotal to its culture and society.

During Apartheid, a global boycott meant South African teams and supporters were on their own.

Now sport is back where it should be. Being used as a means to link communities at home and to engage with the rest of the world.