This was supposed to be Africa’s World Cup. Held on the continent for the first time in the tournament’s 80-year history, the organisers claimed it would “celebrate Africa’s humanity”.
On the pitch too, many thought it could be Africa’s chance to shine. A record six teams from the continent were taking part, a reflection of the African game’s improved standing since 1990 when just two places were reserved for African teams.
Sadly though, the reality has not matched the rhetoric. A mere 40,000 African fans have made it to host nation South Africa, thanks to a complicated online ticketing process that Fifa, football’s governing body, admitted had dissuaded many Africans from attending. Those South Africans that normally make money from football – the hawkers and trinket makers who sell their wares outside stadiums – were also absent: Fifa had banned them from getting anywhere near the grounds lest they take sales from the official corporate “partners”. And to cap it all, the official World Cup song, which includes the line “this time for Africa” is sung by a Colombian, Shakira, with a local South African group called Freshly Ground reduced to providing backing vocals.
Africa’s presence on the pitch has also provided little in the way of comfort. Five of the six teams failed to reach the second round, including South Africa who became the first hosts in history to fall at the first hurdle.
Yet despite the disappointments, Africa’s first World Cup is still a cause for celebration. Many leading football figures and large portions of the European media scoffed at the idea of South Africa managing to host one of the world’s largest events. South Africa has, so far, put on a great show. The stadiums (built on time, unlike London’s Wembley) are fantastic. The new transport network is working well. And far from being locked up in their hotel rooms as feared, fans have embraced South Africa and its history. Thousands of those based in Cape Town have made trips over to Robben Island, while the shebeens near Mandela’s old house in Soweto have been packed every day with tourists exploring the country’s history before watching matches on television.
For a continent too often viewed by the rest of the world through the prism of wars and humanitarian crises, this World Cup has helped to tell a more positive – and realistic – story of Africa.
On the pitch there is still a chance of glory. By reaching the quarter-finals Ghana have already equalled the best ever performance by an African team. Were they to go one further and reach the semi-finals the rest of the continent’s performances would be quickly forgotten.