In the long run Africa may still emerge triumphant

By David Smith

It was the best of times, it was the worst of teams.

Two weeks into the World Cup, Africa is basking in the success of organising the biggest sports event on the planet - but already conducting a post mortem into why its finest talents froze on home ground.

Commentators have praised South Africa for defying the pessimists by staging a smoothly run tournament with a friendly atmosphere and few hiccups. They see it as a turning point for the continent, an "Africa Rising" dawn.

On the field, however, Africa has been sinking. For months politicians have cranked up unrealistic expectations that one of the continent's six competing teams could possibly even win it.

But Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and hosts South Africa crashed out in the first round with just two wins between them. Only Ghana survived to fly the flag.

It left the first African World Cup with a distinctly traditional line-up of Europeans and South Americans.

Chastened, the hosts scaled down their ambitions. "South Africans are already winners," President Jacob Zuma said last week.

"We won on May 15, 2004, when the announcement was made, declaring us as the hosts. And we have proven ourselves to be fantastic hosts."

South Africa does indeed appear to have proved the doubters wrong. Matches have kicked off on time, stadiums have been (mostly) full, floodlights have stayed on and even the great bogeyman, crime, appears to have retreated in the teeth of a huge police operation.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said: "Over the past few weeks South Africa has experienced an extraordinary revival of its national spirit."

Some say all of Africa is the winner, too. The World Cup has come at a moment when politicians and investors are already arguing that corruption, disease, famine, poverty and war should no longer be hung around the continent's neck.

They say its economies are growing, its dictatorships are waning and it has seen no new major wars in the past five years.

Does Africa's on-field disaster spoil its off-field triumph?

"Absolutely not," argues Steve Bloomfield, author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa.

"The image we have in the West of war, famine and corruption is part of the African story, but only part. The World Cup will help chip away at that image. It has the potential to change the way the continent is seen."

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