13 July 2010
Only 12 kilometres separate Spain from Africa at their closest point, and they were united in celebration at the finish of a 19th Fifa World Cup™ that sent a fault line of happiness stretching all the way from Bloemfontein to Barcelona.
This was Africa’s first Fifa World Cup, and it will live in the memory as much for the spirit and smiles of the host nation as for the success of a Spain team who achieved their own first when Andres Iniesta’s 116th-minute winner against the Netherlands put them into the record books as the eighth country to capture football’s most prized crown.
Spain’s concluding triumph in the magnificent “calabash” of Soccer City brought the curtain down on 31 days of football: 64 games at nine venues featuring 599 players from 32 teams who between them scored 145 goals.
South Africa’s success the other defining story
At the end of it all, Vicente del Bosque’s men held the trophy but South Africa’s success was the other defining story, the “Rainbow Nation” putting on a show of pride and purpose that gave a message of hope to an entire continent.
The fact South Africa’s footballers became the first hosts to fall in the first round did nothing to damage the enthusiasm or dim the ubiquitous hum of the vuvuzelas.
South Africa 2010 was a tournament not short on surprises, but European title-holders Spain overcame theirs – an opening loss to Switzerland – to win their remaining six matches, the last four all by a 1-0 scoreline.
No side has won the Fifa World Cup with fewer goals than Spain’s eight, but their football still caught the eye – not least the contributions of pass masters Xavi Hernandez and Iniesta, leading scorer David Villa, and Iker Casillas, beaten just twice and whose two one-on-one saves from Arjen Robben in the final underlined why he fully merited the adidas Golden Glove for best goalkeeper.
For the Netherlands, the memories of South Africa will be mixed after they completed a hat-trick of final heartbreaks, adding to the defeats in 1974 and ’78.
Bert van Marwijk’s Dutchmen won all six games en route to the final, and if this was a more pragmatic Netherlands than some of their forebears, their attacking players still shone in the 4-2-3-1 formation that was the vogue at these finals, Wesley Sneijder helping himself to five goals along the way.
Joachim Low’s Germany offered another success story, impressing the watching world with some scintillating counterattacking play when putting four goals past both England and Argentina before their charge ended with a repeat of their Uefa Euro 2008 final defeat by Spain.
Bronze medallists as in 2006, they finished as the 16-goal top scorers, and their forward Thomas Muller took home the Hyundai Best Young Player prize together with the adidas Golden Boot – the latter reward for his five goals and three assists. Villa, Sneijder and Diego Forlan also managed five but failed to match Muller – who scored with every shot on target – for assists.
The other big individual honour went to Forlan, who earned the adidas Golden Ball for his outstanding displays for the tournament’s biggest surprise package, Uruguay. Oscar Tabarez’s team returned to the semi-finals for the first time in 40 years, their traditional obduracy supplemented by the scoring expertise of Forlan, who arguably mastered the Jabulani better than anybody, and fellow striker Luis Suarez.
Up to the quarter-finals, South America’s finest had threatened to steal the limelight. For the first time all five Conmebol sides advanced from the group stage, four as group winners.
Chile, via some open, attractive football, ended a 48-year wait for a finals victory en route to a runners-up spot behind Spain in their section.
Maradona’s dreams disintegrate
Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay all then marched on to the last eight – a first for the Paraguayans. Argentina’s front men looked formidable, but Diego Maradona’s dreams of another world title disintegrated against Germany.
Brazil’s hopes unravelled in a nightmarish second half against the Dutch that left the 2014 hosts to mull over a second consecutive quarter-final reverse.
The day the Oranje fought back to down Dunga’s men was arguably the most dramatic, given what unfolded subsequently at Soccer City between Uruguay and Ghana. The Black Stars were a crossbar’s width from becoming Africa’s first semi-finalists; instead Asamoah Gyan’s spot-kick in the last minute of extra time bounced off the woodwork and behind. Gyan converted his next attempt in the shoot-out that followed but Uruguay prevailed.
Ghana’s run – which included wins over Serbia and USA – provided the high point of African achievement.
There was disappointment when Carlos Alberto Parreira’s hosts bowed out despite a victory over France, edged out on goal difference by Mexico. Yet Bafana Bafana could hold their heads high and delivered one of the goals of the tournament with its very first – Siphiwe Tshabalala’s searing left-foot strike against Mexico.
Cote d’Ivoire also crashed out with four points, but there were fewer consolations for Africa’s other representatives, Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria all finishing bottom of their groups.
USA, Slovakia, Mexico …
There was plenty of other drama – a big slice of it served up by USA, who retrieved a two-goal deficit against Slovenia, then booked a last-16 place as pool winners when Landon Donovan lashed in a last-gasp winner against Algeria.
Slovakia’s 3-2 win over Italy was another highlight of the group-stage denouement, Robert Vittek’s double helping dump the holders out and send Vladimir Weiss’s men through to the last 16 on their first appearance since independence.
Credit is due elsewhere too. Mexico showcased some exciting young talents as they reached the round of 16 for the fifth finals running. Japan and Korea Republic both advanced for the first time on foreign soil.
The minnows of New Zealand, in their first finals since 1982, were the only team to leave South Africa undefeated. Greece and Slovenia recorded their first Fifa World Cup wins.
Paul the German octopus supplied an amusing sub-plot with his successful predictions.
The most notable disappointments came from Europe, meanwhile. Italy and a squabbling France side, the two finalists in 2006, each exited with their group’s wooden spoon and without a single win between them. England suffered their heaviest Fifa World Cup defeat in crashing out with 4-1 loss to Germany.
Europe eventually gave us the winners – for the first time on another continent – although Africa could celebrate too. And arguably nobody more than Nelson Mandela, who delighted the Soccer City crowd with his appearance before the final.
As Fifa president Sepp Blatter said of the man who played such a pivotal role in creating the modern South Africa: “This World Cup had a special momentum, linked with a history of freedom and the history of one man.”