Waving the Flag

A hard-earned victory for Spain brought down the curtains on the FIFA World Cup 2010. The ill-tempered final saw a profusion of yellow cards and a first-time winner; but there are better reasons for which this tournament deserves to be remembered.

World Cup football came to Africa for the first time in its eighty-year-old history, and South Africa won the honour to host it over Egypt and Morocco. Perhaps it is only fitting that this troubled country should have received the privilege- it gave South Africa the chance to bury its stained past and portray a new, vibrant front, sending out a strong message against racism. There were concerns over the nation’s preparedness to stage the tournament and the pace of organization, but South Africa managed to dispel these fears and pull off a splendid event.

South Africa has not had it easy. A tremendous amount of strife, racial tension and colonial exploitation wreaked havoc in a country richly endowed with natural resources. Apartheid broke the spirit of the country, but one man stood tall and led by example- Nelson Mandela’s determination did not crumble in the face of political disturbance, and he was the force that pulled the country together.

Not very many years have passed since apartheid was entirely abolished, and South Africa has had a lot of rebuilding to do in this period. The economy suffered; poverty and unemployment were rampant. Political systems underwent changes, crime and disease- AIDS, in particular- reared their ugly heads. Having been banned from international sport as a result of sanctions imposed during the apartheid era, South Africa had to struggle back into the fray and make its presence felt. And today, it has just finished playing host to an international sporting event- one of global proportions- with remarkable success.

Reeling under the effects of major societal challenges, it is indeed a stupendous achievement for South Africa to have put everything behind and dedicated itself to producing a marvellous festival- for the World Cup was never just about sport. When different nationalities and ethnicities come together, the tension in the air is palpable- but there is also a spark of excitement, the desire to pummel barriers down and celebrate sport, talent and youth. Afrikaans met English, Shakira gyrated in a Johannesburg stadium, vuvuzelas (and sockzelas) made a smashing (and not easily forgettable) appearance. South Africa has been lauded unanimously for a spectacular event, and rightly so.

While African football didn’t scale great heights, it did have a thumping presence in the tournament- positive signs for a continent that is more often than not remembered for rebellion and disease. South Africa’s success at hosting the tournament should also provide a ray of optimism to its neighbours, struggling to overcome their own problems of politics and racial differences.

Hosting a major sporting event is not the antidote to all political and social troubles. It does, however, create a multitude of opportunities to be capitalised on and generate interest and business. It involves massive expenditure, but if rightly built upon, can be a source of enough positive publicity to attract investment and foreign business. With the world watching, the last layers of diffidence and hesitation are peeled off, and a sparklingly confident front (cleverly concealing the hiccups) reveals itself.

As India comes close to its own sporting extravaganza, the Commonwealth Games, albeit on a much smaller scale, there is a lot it can learn from China, hosts of the 2008 Olympics, and South Africa. Budgets inevitably inflate themselves and spending goes well over the estimates; this, however, need not put paid to our hopes of a successful event. Building on it in the long run is essential- a one-off event which ends up in a large number of arenas that nobody has any use for later is an unforgivable drain on a developing country’s economy. The Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, for instance, hasn’t been put to any great use since the Olympics in 2008- a circumstance that had rather be avoided.

That said, hosting events which provide global exposure gives a fillip to countries that are usually better known not for all the right reasons. South Africa has done itself proud, and Brazil will hopefully carry the mantle on in 2014 as the new powers assert themselves.

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