2010: Africa's annus mirabilis

Welcome to a new blog all about African football. And who better to write it than Just Football founder and editor Jonathan Fadugba?

It has been a big year for Africa. Everyone knows about FIFA entrusting South Africa with the World Cup, but beyond that the continent in fact provided the stage for the football world’s major showpiece events for almost a calendar year.

First, Egypt hosted the Under-20s World Cup back in October 2009. Nigeria then entertained guests at the U-17s World Cup. Angola staged the increasingly prominent African Cup of Nations at the turn of the year. Finally, to culminate Africa’s year in the spotlight, South Africa invited the entire world round for a month long party with the World Cup in June.

The party was eventful. There was plenty of singing and dancing. A few scuffles broke out, some major (France). A drunken uncle staggered about wearily before embarrassing himself (England). There was romance (Ghana), swiftly followed by heartbreak (Uruguay). And, predictably, the best looker in the house got the girl in the end (Spain), though not without a brutal showdown with the playground bully (Netherlands).

Now all that remains are fond memories and an almighty hangover. "How do we live without 2010?" asked one South African journalist, not knowing where to turn. Like a child lost in a supermarket, the sense of missing purpose and post-euphoric emptiness epitomised the sentiments of a nation.

Rough as they are, hangover days are often the best times for reflection. So after the single biggest sporting event in the continent’s history it's worth taking a moment to assess the current state of African football.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS
This year brought about a complete turnaround in the perception of African football in the international community. Previously, playing up the harmless underdog role of African teams at World Cups was de rigeur, taken to an extent that at times bordered patronising.

Since 1970, when Africa first gained a permanent qualifying spot for the world’s biggest football competition, it has almost always been cast in the quirky sub-plot role, not quite taken seriously. African teams are there to add colour and entertainment – a soothing early tonic prior to the grown-up stuff. If international football was a Scooby-Doo cartoon, Africa would undoubtedly be Shaggy.

Think of every major African talking point in the history of the World Cup pre-2010 and most conjure either humour (Roger Milla by the corner flag), irreverence (Zaire 1974) or light-hearted, pat-on-the-head praise (Cameroon ’90, Senegal ’02). Like that awkwardly eccentric but funny friend of yours; great to have around, but you wouldn’t ask him to plan your wedding.

South Africa’s World Cup therefore represents a sea change in perception for the continent at large (I group the continent’s perception collectively because so many fail to disassociate the 54 vastly different countries).

While normally fun to have around, this time, South Africa and Ghana apart, the African contingent, at least from a playing perspective, really weren’t. In fact they were quite dull.

Five of six sides failed to make it past the first group phase. African teams won only four of their 20 games. Cameroon were the first of all 32 nations to be eliminated. And genuinely memorable moments were few and far between; stifled either by limited talent or the failings of coaches who neglected to take chances.


Ghana come home heroes – but they were the exception

When Yakubu missing an open goal is one of the memories of the tournament from an African perspective, you know there was little to get excited about. Ghana’s refreshing swagger and astonishingly dramatic downfall thankfully punctuated the malaise, but the more reflective reader will recognise that on the pitch this was scarcely Africa’s year.

The flipside to this however is an upside that far outweighs the relative trivialities any on-pitch success could ever hope to deliver. For this was the year that Africa gave the world a glimpse of its vast potential, a month-long demonstration of all that is possible.

Yes, this message has been mentioned a thousand times over by press and pundits alike, to an extent that may dilute as much as emphasise its significance. But South Africa staging a successful World Cup is such a giant leap forwards in terms of Africa’s status in the eyes of the wider international community that it really cannot be overstated.

STAB-PROOF VESTS, GOING CHEAP
Take the pre-tournament words of Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, a hugely influential figure in German football: "I was never a friend of a World Cup in South Africa and Africa as long is the security issue is not 100 percent solved. I always considered it wrong... I am convinced that deep down Mr Blatter has realised that giving the World Cup to South Africa was one of the biggest wrong decisions he ever made."

SA2010 proved beyond doubt just how narrow-minded such archaic views really are. No one was kidnapped. The machete-wielding gangs and poisonous snakes we were informed would be rampaging the streets looking for tourists never materialised. And those cute St George’s flag-bearing England stab-proof vests were shown to be about as useful as a vuvuzela in a library.

The specially-created World Cup courts did slow business, with only 100 people convicted. Games kicked off on time. There were no floodlight failures. The stadiums are truly breathtaking – any list of the world’s best stadia must now sit Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium, Durban’s Moses Mabhida and Soccer City alongside the likes of Camp Nou, Old Trafford and the Azteca.


Arch-itecture: the Moses Mabhida

The transport infrastructure is enriched and will benefit the lives of ordinary South Africans for years to come. The South African government announced a 1% rise in annual growth, far higher than pre-tournament forecasts of 0.4%. And of the 500,000-odd foreign visitors to South Africa, a post-tournament survey showed 92% would recommend it as a holiday destination to friends or family.

The economic implications of such a boost to tourism could be worth billions of Rand. Economic consequences can be counted. But the overwhelming joy of the South African people and the unifying effect of a World Cup on a nation scarred by a history of division are immeasurable.

The tangible sense of pan-African unity embodied by the near unanimous backing of Ghana in their run to within a penalty kick of the semi-finals also reflected wonderfully the genuine, wholly innocent feeling among Africans that this really was their World Cup.

It says a lot for the power of sport that a simple month long football tournament can have such profound consequences for the image of an entire continent. But the naysayers have been silenced. Jacob Zuma mentioned a bid for the Olympics and no-one bats an eyelid. The IOC will encourage African bids for the 2020 Games. Previously they wouldn’t have even contemplated it. "Of all the 19 World Cups, dating back to Uruguay in 1930, none has left such a legacy as South Africa 2010," wrote Henry Winter in The Daily Telegraph.

Performance-wise Africa offered little at World Cup 2010, Ghana aside (and I’ll be assessing the reasons why in future blogs). But in climbing its way onto the same platform as the rest of the world by proving it possesses the organisational and logistical skills required to stage an event of such magnitude, June 11th – July 11th 2010 was by far the most important and successful month in the history of African football.

Uli Hoeness might not like it. But chief organiser Danny Jordaan had a message for the Afro-pessimists post-World Cup, and he put it better than anyone: "Just stand in the corner and sulk. We'll just leave you in the corner."

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