This time for Africa
A new continent, and a fresh sense of the unknown for visitors to Africa's first World Cup.
South Africa welcomed the world with the most open of arms, give or take some buttock-clenching prices for accommodation and transport, though many of its visitors arrived with no little trepidation. Media reports of high crime rates and logistical chaos dominated the more developed world's build-up to the tournament, but such eventualities proved limited if not non-existent. Once the South African modus operandi was accepted, trouble could be avoided, and the tournament could be enjoyed.
In football terms, this will not be a well-remembered World Cup, though to dismiss it entirely would be to forget a series of clear highlights. On English shores, the tournament is almost forgotten as a bad dream, though a national stereotype of insularity and the realisation of yet another unnecessary raising of hopes can be blamed for that. England, and let's get it out of the way here, stunk the place out for all save the 40 minutes before Robert Green's unfortunate spilling of a Clint Dempsey shot in their opening match with the USA. A linesman may have erred in their second-round match with Germany, but both the standard of their play and a misplaced sense of entitlement meant few could mourn the fact that this group of players would not be ending 44 years of hurt.
England's football was outdated in the face of the attacking athleticism of the Germans, who themselves could not solve the Spanish conundrum that eventually swept the board. Spain got off to a horrible start in losing to the Swiss in the very last match of the first set of group games. But that Durban setback did not see them abandon their principles or chosen style of play. Spain won their first World Cup through a domination of opponents that may not have translated into wide margins of victory but left them vanquished, frustrated and ineffectual.
Soccer City's final may have lapsed into farcical disgrace when Dutch strong-arm tactics were complemented by some Spanish amateur dramatics, but the losing finalists' actions betrayed a lack of answers to Spain's pressing and passing game. Andres Iniesta's winner was created by the incisive pass of Cesc Fabregas, whose role as a mere substitute proved Spain's depth of quality. They will not be remembered as the most thrilling of winners, but their supremacy received just reward.
A World Cup should not be remembered just for the victors, for there were several stories to choose from. While the South African hosts failed to qualify from their group, they closed their account by defeating the French, whose in-fighting on a training pitch was caught on candid camera, and featured a wondrous display of Gallic stroppiness as relations descended to levels that made England's unhappy house look like a love-in.
Honourable mentions must go to Slovakia, who ended holders Italy's reign at Ellis Park, Johannesburg; USA, whose late Landon Donovan goal against Algeria was a thrilling reward for their constant pressure; and Paraguay, who may have annoyed some with their sometimes negative football yet reached the last eight for the first time and there gave the Spanish quite a scare.
There were heartening tales to tell among the minnows, too. New Zealand ended the tournament as its only unbeaten outfit, and even won plaudits across the Tasman Sea in Australia. North Korea's revolutionary seven-man defence looked like it might hold off Brazil for large parts of their group meeting, though it fell apart in conceding seven against Portugal, who did not manage to score in another match. Japan and Cameroon fought out one of the tournament's best matches in Pretoria, though this was a poor showing by Africa's contingent, with all but Ghana perishing in the group stage.
Ghana, then, carried the hopes of a continent into the knockout stages and beat USA in extra time in Rustenburg, before meeting Uruguay in the match that supplied the most heightened drama.
The two teams duked it out for 120 minutes of thrilling fare before an incident that would divide world opinion. With what looked the last kick of the game, Dominic Adiyiah's shot was goalbound before the hand of Luis Suarez deflected it away. Suarez's actions succeeded where colleagues Jorge Fucile's hand had already tried and the forward was dismissed in tears.
Suarez's desolation turned to jubilation when Asamoah Gyan blasted his destiny off the crossbar, and penalties ensued, with more drama to follow when Gyan stepped up to rattle in the first of the shootout, a show of genuine moral courage. Yet it was Uruguay who prevailed, their winning kick supplied by an impudent chip from Sebastian Abreu that hit the back of the net to almost total silence at Soccer City.
Suarez's moment of deviousness had supplied a path to victory to his country and, to paraphrase ubiquitous chanteuse Shakira, this time for Africa had been one of disappointment.
Uruguay and Suarez were vilified, as debates raged about their profiting from such gamesmanship, but in Diego Forlan they also supplied the player of the tournament. Playing as an unfamiliar attacking midfielder, it was his long-range shooting and creativity that drove his country to their best World Cup finish since 1970, and almost matched the golden days of 1930 and 1950, taking a tiny nation to a place both Brazil and Argentina failed to reach. A classic semi-final with Netherlands saw Forlan play with an injury, yet he almost hauled his men into the final before Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben took advantage of Uruguayan fatigue.
Sneijder had already removed the co-favourites by then. In the quarter-final in Port Elizabeth, Brazil's smooth progress had been ripped asunder in an error-strewn second half against the Dutch. Felipe Melo would be their fall-guy, his head deflecting in Sneijder's chip for the equaliser and then, with his team behind to another Sneijder goal, he extinguished hope of a comeback when he was sent off for a senseless stamp on Arjen Robben.
Argentina had been the tournament's entertainment franchise, not least when coach Diego Maradona took the floor with a microphone. Maradona's constant tactile embracing of his charges showed a team spirit that was not matched by technical nous, and a gameplan overloaded with attacking players foundered in Cape Town as lone tackler Javier Mascherano was unable to counter the flowing play of the Germans, for whom Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger provided precision attacking that Maradona's men had no answer to.
Such memories may have faded in the light of some of the regrettable scenes on show in the final, for which the Dutch took the lion's share of the blame. Yet the final provided a historic moment in its build-up, when Nelson Mandela, who had been unable to attend the opening match after a tragedy had befallen his family, briefly made an appearance at Soccer City, and accepted the plaudits of the football world, and his country, for which he had played such a leading role in delivering the World Cup to.
And the majority of his nation's visitors will have departed South Africa with a sense of respect and affection for a country that had bent over backwards to receive its guests, in often haphazard but always welcoming style.