Cup was tri­umphant turn for South Africa

From Man­dela to Zuma, a cel­e­bra­tion of a host nation

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS BRIEFING -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG — The 120 min­utes of soc­cer that yielded Spain’s most glo­ri­ous sport­ing achieve­ment won’t be re­mem­bered as one of the more riv­et­ing fi­nals in World Cup his­tory.

But in South Africa, the month­long tour­na­ment will go down as the moment when a nation frac­tured along racial, eco­nomic and cul­tural lines be­came one — at least for a time — and, through sports, re­al­ized a deeper mean­ing of its young democ­racy.

So it was fit­ting that Nel­son Man­dela, South Africa’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent, made his longed­for first ap­pear­ance at the tour­na­ment be­fore kick­off Sun­day.

One week shy of his 92nd birth­day, Man­dela looked thin and frail, bun­dled in a black top­coat and hat, as he was driven slowly around the field on a golf cart with his wife, Graca Machel, be­side him. The anti-apartheid icon and No­bel lau­re­ate did not ad­dress the crowd but expressed his pride and ela­tion over South Africa’s star turn as host through a ra­di­ant smile and wave of a gloved hand. For­mer South African pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela, left, waves with his wife, Graca Machel, ahead of the World Cup fi­nal.

The crowd of 84,490 stood through­out his ap­pear­ance, which lasted no more than three min­utes, then set­tled in for an all-Euro­pean fi­nal, Spain vs. Nether­lands, that was guar­an­teed to pro­duce a first-time World Cup vic­tor.

Mem­bers of both na­tions’ royal fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing Queen Sofia of Spain and Hol­land’s Prince WillemAlexan­der and Princess Max­ima, were seated with 15 African heads of state, in­clud­ing South African Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma and his pre­de­ces­sors, Thabo Mbeki and Willem de Klerk. (Man­dela re­turned home to watch the match on TV.)

Spain scored late in ex­tra time to win 1-0 in a match that wasn’t the kind of open, free-flow­ing event the world had hoped.

After­ward, coach Vi­cente del Bosque de­clared his squad’s vic­tory an achieve­ment “that goes be­yond sports,” be­cause Spain, to a lesser ex­tent than South Africa, also has its share of dis­sent­ing fac­tions and re­gional squab­bling.

“We’ve been sup­ported by all the peo­ple of Spain,” Del Bosque said. “We helped bring our peo­ple to­gether.”

It was an equal tri­umph for South Africa, host of the first World Cup on African soil. Peo­ple around the globe saw the many beau­ti­ful sides to this far-off coun­try.

Skep­tics warned that South Africa’s high crime rate, sub­par in­fra­struc­ture and lack of ex­per­tise in stag­ing large-scale events would prove a calamity.

But apart from mi­nor glitches, the 2010 World Cup was a suc­cess, de­liv­er­ing a unique look, rhythm and feel.

It was marked by the un­ex­pected from the start. Spain opened with a loss to Switzer­land. Reign­ing World Cup cham­pion Italy failed to progress to the sec­ond round. And a plas­tic horn called the vu­vuzela be­came an in­ter­na­tional sen­sa­tion (and bane), only to be eclipsed by a psy­chic oc­to­pus named Paul.

For all the na­tional pride and in­ter­na­tional re­spect it gen­er­ated over the past month, even the most op­ti­mistic rec­og­nize that the World Cup won’t solve South Africa’s pro­found prob­lems.

Fully half the coun­try’s 49 mil­lion peo­ple live be­low the poverty line. One in four adults are un­em­ployed. One in five adults suf­fer from HIV/AIDS, among the high­est in­ci­dence rates in the world.

Yet Zuma’s words on the eve of Sun­day’s fi­nal were un­de­ni­able.

“South Africa has come alive,” the pres­i­dent said. “And it will never be the same again af­ter this World Cup.”

Martin Meiss­ner

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