South Africa left with emptiness to fill
The excitement that hung in the air like invisible popcorn seeds waiting to burst open could only be overtaken by one thing on World Cup final day - a profound sadness.
I call it final day because for South Africans this day was not Sunday, the day before Monday, the day after Saturday, July 11 or anything else. It was final day, the day they were most waiting for and most dreading at the same time. It would mark the climax of Africa's first World Cup and would signal the end of six years of dreaming.
The plain truth is this: most South Africans want the World Cup to go on forever. They want to see the flags festooning every building, hear the noise of someone's random vuvuzela blurting into their conversations every day and see foreign visitors who had such awful perceptions about this place taking so much pleasure from it. They won't mind the traffic jams as team buses or delegations of officials go past, they won't mind the endless queuing to shuffle into stadiums, they won't even mind if it has to remain winter until the end of time, as long as the World Cup stays.
South Africa has, since 2004, done almost everything with one eye on the World Cup. Construction of stadiums, new hotels, better roads and more efficient infrastructure had a tangible goal in mind.
A large part of those six years have been spent hearing how the country would not be ready and, if by some miracle they were, they would only dissolve into an abyss of chaos. Some South Africans even agreed with that and booked month-long holidays for the duration of the tournament. Most just observed quietly, getting on with their lives unsure what to think.
The past two months have changed all that. It started with a string of Bafana Bafana friendly matches that were the central point around which the marketing campaign was based. That led to eight weeks of pure ecstasy. As the tournament approached and rolled out, national pride reached unprecedented levels. This was a high nothing else could have provided as South Africa proved the world wrong and earned their praise in the same stroke, ultimately teaching themselves what it felt like to be a nation.
It's completely inaccurate to say that racial divisions have healed and class inequality has eased after the World Cup. Those two things have a long and painful history and it will take much more than a joyride through a sports tournament to make them go away. But, the good vibe and all encompassing festivities have, as Mark Gevisser put it in The Guardian, allowed South Africans to sprout warm and fuzzy feelings because they feel victorious.
"We won most of all, because we could finally say we," said Gevisser, a leading journalist in South Africa.
Now, the catalyst for that joy has been put out and emptiness is painful. Most host nations suffer from post World Cup depression and given the unparalleled summits of joy South Africa mounted, one can only guess how desperately low they might go. The promotions people have moved with pace and a company called Draftcb launched the "Keep the flag flying" campaign two Fridays ago. They are encouraging South Africans to keep their flags displayed and their vuvuzelas blowing (which may cause some to get more depressed) for another 30 days after the final.
The real test will come when the 30 days are over and the new South African Premier League season kicks off. It will be interesting to see whether people of different races turn up at local matches or if it will remain a sporting code that is primarily supported by black people. Foreign leagues, such as the English Premier League or La Liga, don't struggle for support among whites or Indians in South Africa, but the PSL does. Will the people, who turned out in their droves to watch the World Cup and who got behind Bafana Bafana, continue to be interested in the fortunes of Siphiwe Tshabalala when he dons his Kaizer Chiefs kit?
Jomo Sono, coach of first division side Jomo Cosmos and a member of FIFA's technical committee thinks they will. "I can see more white South Africans returning to support local PSL teams instead of supporting English sides as they have done in the past,'' he said. ''We must welcome the white people of our country back into local soccer which will help stimulate the local game once the World Cup is over."
For that to happen, the perception of the PSL as a low quality league needs to change. Many of the league's dissidents say that they prefer foreign leagues because they can watch better football. But, South Africans of all races joined the chorus of praise for the standard of football Bafana Bafana played at the World Cup. With most of the squad made up of local players, the supporters should get the style of soccer they want to see at club games as well.
For those fans who aren't football converts, there may be another sporting event for them to look forward to in a few years time. Rumours are rife that South Africa will bid for the 2020 Olympic Games. Cape Town and Durban are the two frontrunners and the notion has been enforced by President Jacob Zuma who said, "People are already talking about a possibility of bidding for (other) major events and we are supporting this. The Olympics are an example."
Just like the World Cup, South Africa failed in its first attempt to host the Olympics when Cape Town lost out to Athens in 2004. Much has changed since that failed bid and South Africa as a society is a very different organism. This World Cup has helped both its own inhabitants and the rest of the world to see that. The country that is regarded by some as the crime hub of the world showed remarkable efficiency when dealing with perpetrators at the World Cup and saw crime decrease by over 50% in big cities. That alone has made priceless gains for South Africa's profile across the globe.
Fans who have left South Africa said they found the country be a very different place to what the imagined it would be, based on the way it was reflected in the international media. Their word of mouth marketing is what SA Tourism is banking on to attract more visitors to the country.
While tourists have always known that they could visit the southern tip of Africa to spot the big five, and soak up the sun, they're now going to find out that a warmth of a different kind also exists in South Africa. It's those beams of sunlight that reflect all the gains made during the tournament, that South Africans can bask in for a long time to come, despite the football shaped hole their hearts as they bid farewell to the World Cup.