South Africa has hosted World Cups in all three major sports in which it competes: rugby, cricket and football. All of them were supposed to bring together and alter the country irreversibly. The first did, but only for a moment. The second went by without many noticing it was even happening but the third, and the biggest, was by far the best. Although the 2010 tournament did not provide a solution to all of South Africa's social problems -- and it was naive to think it would -- the developments made financially, and in infrastructure and tourism, speak to its success.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup took place in a South Africa freshly emerged from the horrors of Apartheid and barely a year into its democracy. The month-long tournament was touted as the great unifier because it was thought to bring black and white together. Many believed that when they saw Nelson Mandela greeted by an Ellis Park crowd who chanted his name and cheered him deliriously when he handed the trophy to Francois Pienaar. It was the image that defined this country as a fairytale because it was devoid of context.
Anyone who could see beyond that frame would know the wounds of division ran too deeply for one day to heal them all. On that day, the rainbow nation seemed to have found its pot of gold but as soon as the moment was unfrozen, the stark realities were obvious again. Wealth was still contained in the hands of the minority, South Africa's underprivileged population remained so. Very few of them able to take any part in the tournament itself as they dealt with the daily realities of being have nots.
Eight years later, the Cricket World Cup rolled in and it is the showpiece that's least remembered. The sport, although one of the country's big three, was and still is, overwhelmingly represented at an elite level by the white minority. Efforts to transform it then were grudgingly accepted and largely ineffective, so this tournament failed to capture the imagination of the masses.
It did not help that the South African team, widely expected to win the competition, crashed out unceremoniously in the first round. Ask ordinary people in the country if they even remember the tournament and you will likely be met with a puzzled expression and a "no."
Then came 2010.
After bidding unsuccessfully for the 2006 World Cup, South Africans were unsure the global showpiece would reach these shores in their lifetime, but a combination of Danny Jordaan determination and Mandela magic ensured it did.
The euphoria was soon replaced with the realities of hard work of preparation as the wider world did not trust South Africa to pull it off. The stadium won't be ready, they said. As reports mushroomed of workers going on strike, their doomsday predictions grew legs. The country would crash under a wave of crime, they added. When Eugene Terre'blanche -- leader of a white neo-Nazi movement which campaigned for discriminatory policies to be reintroduced -- was murdered, it fueled outsiders' fear of a race war.
On the ground, life was carrying on. Slowly, the country was readying itself for its biggest party, and what a party it was. Bafana Bafana became the first host nation to exit during the first round but that did not prevent their open-top bus parade through the streets of the country's financial hub, Sandton, the week before kickoff or their heroes' reception after they beat France in their final act.
Away from the national team, South Africa welcomed the world with open arms and they were only too glad to be embraced. They were also pleasantly surprised by how well the country functioned. For that, South Africans will always be proud.
It was their own Barack Obama-esque time when yes, they could. Fun was had, money was made but has South Africa changed because of the World Cup? Judge for yourself.
Hosting the tournament cost South Africa R40 billion ($4 billion), but auditing firm Grant Thornton's study considered the money well spent, particularly when it came to infrastructure. South Africa built five new stadiums and upgraded 20 others of which five more were World Cup host sites and the rest used as training grounds. In addition, national roads improved, new transport systems were put in place and internet connectivity increased as 128,000 new kilometres of fibre-optic cables were installed.
At face value the first observation would seem an incorrect one. Although the artful theatres of dreams altered South Africa's skylines, they were deemed a luxury because they were thought to have limited use once the tournament was over.
For some of them, this holds true, but others have provided spaces for musical events, other sporting events and served as grounds for league matches in areas that otherwise may not see local football action. Soccer City, where the World Cup final was played and which has been at the centre of a fight regarding naming rights and ownership, has doubled as a concert hall. U2, Coldplay, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have all performed there and Bruce Springsteen is next on the list.
Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was used as a rugby ground during this season's Super Rugby campaign, the first in which the team from that region played in the competition. It saw capacity crowds for all the home games. The grounds in Polokwane, Nelspruit and Rustenburg are less busy but they have hosted the country's big football clubs and the latter two, the African Nations' Cup.
The Cape Town stadium has suffered the worst because there are several other venues in the city that are used for entertainment. It has seen small crowds for league fixtures and, like all the others, is expensive to maintain. The accusation remains that it is simply a pricey monument, but it may be the only one that is because the others have had their uses.
Similarly, the rest of what was built also adds to the way this country functions. Johannesburg and Pretoria are now linked via a high-speed train, the Gautrain, which also travels to the airport. Although the nifty method of transport was not ready by the time the World Cup came to town, it was conceived with the event in mind and since it launched it has proved a popular way to get around in a place where public transport remains underdeveloped.
Spending money on construction helped cushion South Africa from the full effect of the 2008 recession because it provided an economic boost. Although the country has since gone into decline like much of the rest of the world, its downturn has been much slighter and the spin-offs from the World Cup are still being felt.
Some credit South Africa's invitation to join BRICS -- an economic collaboration between Brazil, Russia, India and China -- as being due to the success of the World Cup. Others believe the major investments from companies like Walmart, who acquired a 51 percent stake in the retail giant Massmart, was because of the higher-profile South Africa attained as World Cup hosts.
Mandela's land grew an additional character trait during the World Cup. Once known mainly for the man who brought it out of the darkness, South Africa's other qualities were put on display during the World Cup. The country offers a mix of city life and natural wonder, a vibrancy of cultures and environments and a climate that makes it an attractive place to visit year round and that's what people saw. Some for the first time.
Grant Thornton revealed an astounding 96 percent of visitors who attended the tournament said they would return and 92% confirmed they would recommended it as a holiday destination. South African Tourism measured awareness levels of the country as having increased by 9 percent and that people who intended coming to the country in the short term went up by 35 percent.
South Africa's tourism has continued to grow with numbers increasing by 10.2 percent in the last year, far outweighing the global average. Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk continues to credit the World Cup as being one of the key factors for more people being interested in traveling to South Africa.
Once they get here, they may not immediately see this country as a place that hosted a World Cup. The legacy projects, for which R400 million ($40 million) was put into a trust by FIFA are not visible to the untrained eye but they are there.
Their first roll-outs came out this year when R56 million ($5.6 million) was distributed among 973 beneficiaries. Their aim is not only to do good for football but for a variety of spheres where South Africa needs development. The focus is on education with many of the projects aimed at schooling people.
During the first phase, 24 schemes were launched to support higher learning in the business sphere with the aim of creating people who had the skills to become administrators, while 33 others looked at training health professionals who would be skilled in providing medical assistance to sports people. The bulk of the money went towards football development with money set aside for women's and beach soccer and the uplifting clubs.
The fruits of these investments will only be seen in years to come, when more of that money is spent, more people are educated and better footballers come through.
What you will notice if you come to South Africa now are remnants of the World Cup: a chain of the flags of the 32 countries who participated hanging in a small store somewhere because the owner is too sentimental to take them down, a signed shirt framed in a restaurant where one of the squads ate, a handful of people of all races wearing the Bafana Bafana jersey to attend a the derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs game.
You will also see inequality. The posh suburbs of the wealthy and the shanty towns of those who the system forgot. You will hear of some crime and you will not like some of the stories you read about corruption and politicking.
The football world cup, like its rugby and cricket counterparts, did not create a unified South Africa and did not change us forever. But it was the tournament that came the closest.