Johannesburg: South Africa basked Saturday in the success of its trouble-free World Cup, as finishing touches were put to the closing ceremony with superstar Shakira and a herd of giant elephant puppets.
“There’s no doubt this month has been a dramatic success,” the Saturday Star said in an editorial, in a paper brimming with headlines like “Yes, South Africa can”.
With less than 48 hours to go, the country is bursting with pride at proving wrong the doubters who for years feared that the nation’s high crime rate and poor public transport would undermine the tournament.
But the event went off without a major hitch, as hundreds of thousands of foreign fans descended on the country, and South Africans wrapped themselves in a patriotic spirit that bridged the still sharp racial divide.
“The explosion of national pride and the unity that has been displayed by all South Africans is an invaluable benefit of the tournament,” President Jacob Zuma said late Friday.
“The hosting of the tournament became a catalyst for development and investment,” he added.
South Africa built five new stadiums and renovated five others for the tournament, including the showpiece Soccer City that is now the biggest on the continent, with up to 94,500 seats.
The country also unveiled a smart new high-speed train, repaired highways, opened a new airport, and built new bus and train stations ahead of the June 11 kick-off.
Tourists are expected to have spent 8.8 billion rands (1.1 billion dollars, 920 million euros) at the World Cup, but South African leaders insist the social benefits have been far greater.
“What we cannot quantify is the generation of pride in South Africa as a nation, the unity, the sharing of a single vision,” said Danny Jordaan, head of the local organising committee.
“We have seen black and white side by side at fan parks and stadiums, when for many years these people were prohibited by law to sit together,” he said.
“The demographics at stadiums really showed football contributed towards nation building.”
After the battle for third place between Germany and Uruguay, South Africa’s last moment in the spotlight is Sunday’s final between the Netherlands and Spain.
Colombian superstar Shakira is headlining the pre-game show with South African Grammy winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo, while a herd of white elephant puppets will parade through Soccer City.
An estimated 500 million viewers are expected to watch the final around the world, but it’s still not clear if Nelson Mandela will watch from home or from the stands.
South Africa’s first black president played a crucial role in bringing the World Cup to the country, but has yet to attend a match.
He cancelled a planned appearance at the opening after his great-granddaughter died in a car accident. His foundation says Mandela and his family will only decide on Sunday if he will attend the final.