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Football matters: for some, this World Cup changes everything

The tournament’s unifying legacy is an important building block for South Africa.

A couple of weeks ago in the New Statesman (5 July edition), Stefan Szymanski argued that the football World Cup benefited only Fifa. His main contention was that the tournament would not be economically successful in a country desperately in need of funds for projects more life-enhancing than the construction of showpiece stadiums.

Moreover, while admitting that the public might derive "a significant feel-good factor" from the event, Szymanski dismissed this, essentially because there are "more serious" things to be worrying about in South Africa.

This view needs challenging. First, on a tangible level, the positive impact of the World Cup for South Africa is becoming apparent. Szymanski cites the springtime prediction by Grant Thornton, consultant to the organising committee, that visitors to South Africa would reach 373,000.

Fewer than 400,000 tourists -- especially when compared to the hope, back in 2004, for a figure more like 600,000 -- would have represented an economic disaster for the country.

Pass me that vuvuzela

Luckily predictions don't always come true. Even the initial estimates, long regarded as desperately optimistic, fell short. Despite varying figures, it is clear that more than a million people passed through South African airports during the World Cup period.

The economic impact of such tourism is obvious. The vuvuzela-toting visitor needs food, a bed, maybe even a safari. Indeed, although the levels of success remain regional -- for example, Johannesburg appears to have done better than Cape Town -- the recent news from retailers and hotels has been extremely positive.

So, money is coming in to South Africa. Moreover, the World Cup has given much-needed impetus to internal development. Szymanski argues that money spent on stadiums should have been spent on infrastructure instead.

But money has been spent on infrastructure. The impressive Gautrain, which opened in June, ferried hundreds of thousands of customers to the airport over the World Cup period. And this is not just some fleeting project, to be abandoned when all the excitement dies down: the line is to be extended across Johannesburg and will reach Pretoria. It will be invaluable to commuters.

Other projects sprouting from the World Cup will have a direct impact on the lives of South Africans. Fifa itself has parted with £46m for 20 Football for Hope projects that provide health and education services as well as sport. Many who came for the tournament, such as the AC Milan star Clarence Seedorf, are launching similar programmes.

But even more important than these concrete moves are the feelings of pride and unity that this World Cup gave to South Africans. They, more than anyone, doubted that their country could pull it off.

So, while the new stadiums might seem like mere "eye candy" to Szymanski, in South Africa they have become icons.

The pride in poverty-stricken Soweto at being the home of Soccer City, one of the world's biggest and most modern stadiums, is palpable.

Excitement that lasts

On another note, South Africa's problems with crime prompted ominous predictions. But the fast-track policing and judicial systems used were so effective that they are to be employed in the future.

Crime, though, was not just low because of effective prevention and enforcement. The "feel-good factor" identified by Szymanski must not be underestimated. The month felt like one huge carnival to South Africans, who danced in the streets in their South African, then Ghanaian, then Argentinian, then Dutch, then Spanish gear as their chosen team was eliminated at each stage. Most did not wish to crash their own party.

Crucially, this excitement is mutating into something more lasting. The legacy of apartheid still hovers in South Africa. In sport, as reflected in the national teams, football is largely regarded as a black activity, rugby being the white man's choice. But this World Cup (and this is a view espoused by many commentators in South Africa) has done more than almost anything else to bring people together.

Not only did the country unite around the national team, but it then united to an extraordinary extent (though no more than we would have done for France or Germany, should they have been flying the flag for Europe) around Ghana as the last African team left in the competition. White South Africans streamed into Soweto, home of the apartheid resistance movement and a place many had never been before. They immersed themselves in a culture almost foreign to them.

As we queued at the turnstiles in Soccer City to watch the Ghana v Uruguay quarter-final, an Afrikaner in front of us took it upon himself to teach anyone who would listen the best technique for blowing the vuvuzela. A white South African, in Soweto, passionately supporting a black African country, embracing something distinctive to local culture. The connotations are unifying and transformative for the new South Africa.