A case of what might have been
It was billed as the World Cup of security fears, organisational snafus and logistical nightmares. And we knew in advance about the vuvuzelas. In the end, ironically, it was the football that let us all down. Memorable at times but in the main far too sterile.
A feel-good factor we certainly had - in abundance - with bags of colour and unpredictability. Great stadiums, loads of tension and surprises, well-meaning volunteers. And boy, the South Africans know how to cook a steak.
But having now been to seven World Cups, one was left with an overall feeling of disappointment that the game we all love so passionately has, if anything, gone backwards. Especially when it comes to the stifling must-not-lose mentality employed by so many teams.
Whilst few would disagree that Spain were worthy winners of their first ever World Cup, the fact that they won four of those games 1-0 had the purists throwing up their arms in despair at how few fixtures saw teams going for the jugular. Even Spain got lucky at times. A perfectly good Paraguay goal was disallowed and Chile's Mark Gonzalez could have changed the course of history if he hadn't missed one of the sitters of the tournament.
Luck, though, every team needs to win the biggest prize. Twas ever thus. But Sunday's final crystalised the worst aspect of the past four weeks. Danny Jordaan, the public face of the tournament, did his best to save that face by describing Spain-Holland as outstanding. Who was he trying to kid? The final said everything you needed to know about how teams set themselves up to stifle the opposition. A scrappy, niggly, petulant affair that will be remembered in years to come for all the wrong reasons after the big build-up.
Experience has proved that the group stages of the World Cup are often cautious, tepid affairs. It's all about getting through to the knockout stage. You can understand this but it wasn't always the case. Back in 1986, Denmark found themselves in the proverbial group of death but put on what I still regard as the finest exhibition of breathtaking football I have ever witnessed in any World Cup; a ruthless 6-1 demolition of Uruguay which, importantly, told the world the Danes were not just there to make up the numbers. Okay they lost in the next round having peaked too soon but that, to use a worn cliche, is football.
If only the Danes' refreshing approach back then was still the norm. The persistent refusal of teams to throw off the shackles of watchfulness, bar one or two notable exceptions, left many in South Africa with a feeling of prolonged frustration.
Perhaps, in a way, it was too harsh to expect South Africa 2010 to match the thrilling entertainment of four years ago. Germany was always going to be a tough act to follow, on and off the pitch. Perhaps too harsh as well to draw a complete veil over the quality of football - or lack of it. Way back in 1982, although we had Paulo Rossi's hat-trick to admire as he sent home arguably the best Brazilian team never to win the World Cup, we also had the infamous debacle of West Germany and Austria deliberately playing out a 1-0 scoreline to send both nations through at the expense of collusion, an act of collusion so disreputable that it led to one German supporter burning their flag in protest.
The game, thankfully, has moved on since then in terms of fair play. In one way at least. In another, FIFA's blanket refusal to introduce goal-line technology - who knows what might have transpired had Frank Lampard's goal-that-wasn't against Germany stood - has kept football in the dark ages. We await to see whether Sepp Blatter now has the courage of his apparently new convictions.
While some over the past four weeks have undoubtedly enhanced their reputations - Diego Forlan, Joachim Low and the whole philosophy behind Germany's approach - others sunk without trace. Blaming over-expectation, a stressful European season or the draining weight of Champions League football are not credible excuses for the failures of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
And as for the unloved little World Cup mascot Zakumi, it quickly adorned those cut-price merchandising stores. So, the cynics might say, should many of those who dramatically failed to inspire us on the pitch.
The Nelson Mandela/Danny Jordaan/Sepp Blatter co-production may have generated a sense of national unity but somewhere, somehow, FIFA took its eye off the ball. Result? A mediocre tournament compared with most in terms of quality, and a dearth of superstar performances and great matches. Which, as someone who was there when South Africa campaigned for and was awarded the World Cup, comes as a great shame.
Jettisoning a new ball into the finals, much of which was played at altitude, was never going to be the cleverest idea. Nor was an over-intense match schedule. But it was the fear factor, highlighted by a preponderance of cloying 4-2-3-1 formations, that really stuck in the craw. It could have been the best World Cup ever. Instead one was left with an abiding feeling of what might have been ...