JOHANNESBURG -- It started with Nelson Mandela. But will it end with South Africa setting itself firmly into a new age?
In his closing remarks at a wrap-up news conference on Monday, FIFA president Sepp Blatter paid homage to Mandela, the man he said was truly responsible for South Africa being the first African nation to host the World Cup. When Blatter met Mandela two decades ago, it was Mandela's wish that South Africa someday host a World Cup, and Mandela's presence at Sunday's World Cup final meant that his goal of showcasing South Africa as a beautiful, unified nation had finally come true.
But when Blatter and FIFA leave, when the stadiums are no longer filled with spectators rabidly supporting their respective nations, when the thousands of extra police officers hired for the Cup leave the street corners, what becomes of South Africa?
What will this World Cup mean for this country's future?
It's a compelling question, one we likely won't know the answer to for years to come. But when you consider the complex issues that still plague South Africa in the post-apartheid era, sports should receive special credit for being the instrument that has helped this nation plow forward.
From the moment it was known that South Africa would host this year's World Cup, this country knew what was at stake. This was South Africa's opportunity to show the world that it -- along with the entire content of Africa -- had moved on from its conflicted past.
South Africa did that wonderfully. Worries that an African nation didn't possess the resources and ability to host something as monumental as this international event were put to rest over the past 30-plus days. The concerns about safety and infrastructure were unfounded. The biggest "international incident" that took place during the tournament was the Englishman who mistook England's dressing room for a toilet. The success of the tournament has inspired South Africa to set its sight on a bigger prize: the 2020 Olympics.
"It's important, what are we going to do beyond this point?" said Irvin Khoza, the chairman of the local 2010 Olympic organizing committee. "Never in the history of this country have we seen the people wearing the Bafana Bafana jersey across the color line. Also, wearing their flag. So, for me, the inspiring moment for the people in this country, post-1994, the rainbow nation has achieved what was expected of it."
The racial healing that took place during the World Cup will undoubtedly be the foundation for South Africa as it tries to not only resolve its past, but deal with the legacy and scars left in the wake of apartheid.
When Ghana forged to the quarterfinals, every African -- not just those from Ghana -- stood together in support. The whites who staunchly supported rugby have spent the past month masquerading as soccer fans because every African seemed to sense that something bigger than themselves was happening.
It was amazing to see, but this country shouldn't break an arm patting itself on the back because there are major economic and social issues that must be confronted -- issues that the proliferation of soccer will not fix.
Beautiful soccer stadiums were erected to host these games, but in many of their backdrops are townships and communities where residents live in shacks made of aluminum, where a quality education is unattainable, and the exposure to HIV is almost a statistical certainty.
Being the first African nation to host the World Cup will mean nothing if this event isn't a springboard to deal with the issues that Mandela really surrendered for. He wanted his people to be free, but he also wanted them to be equal and share in the nation's prosperity.
If the World Cup, or even the coveted Olympics, becomes about the prosperity of a few, then South Africa's new beginning will be a waste. If those stadiums built in Polokwane and Rustenburg stay empty, they will be symbols, but no one will like what they stand for.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.