I watched and I waited, but I didn't see many beautiful games. Soccer's reputation deserves to suffer from last month's spectacle, just as I fear a majority of South Africans will suffer.
For South Africa, the euphoria will quickly evaporate to be replaced by harsh realities. A government that can't supply electricity and sanitation to its citizens will now seriously consider an Olympic bid. After all, you have to do something with those gorgeous new stadiums FIFA forced South Africa to build, though for a fraction of the cost existing ones could have been refurbished. Imagine what $5-billion could have done for South Africans who have been so bitterly betrayed by their venal, self-enriching ANC government, once proud freedom-fighters.
Maybe spending that money on its citizens could have avoided the anti-immigrant violence that's now widely predicted. Or maybe the many thousands of South Africans who believed they would benefit from the games will wait passively now for those Olympics. Maybe at the Olympics games 20 years from now they'll actually be able to sell their modest goods to visitors, as FIFA prevented them from doing at World Cup matches.
What an anti-climax. What a let-down. How mediocre and second-rate so much of it seemed.
Those who want a realistic assessment of the damage the games have done to South Africans can easily find it; I hope you do. Patrick Bond, a prolific local academic, set up World Cup Watch. Mark Gevisser, another South African author, wrote a demystifying article for the New York Times. It's not a big secret if you care to know the truth.
As for the actual games, if it hadn't been for the extraordinary hype - far more invasive than 100,000 vuvuzelas - the patriotic hysteria and the fantastic expectations, you could have snoozed through many of them, as I can testify. The problem with Spain's glorious display of ball-handling when it whupped Germany in the semi was that it reminded us what a beautiful game looked like. But then even Spain tightened up in its final with the thugs from Holland, leaving us with a game that for the most part epitomized much of the tournament - dreary and dirty.
I had worked myself up to a certain pitch of excitement reading the unavoidable torrent of advance stories about the brilliant stars to watch, the great teams who would perform unimaginable feats of beauty and skill and heart. I was primed and prepared to pay attention, really for the first time ever.
What an anti-climax. What a let-down. How mediocre and second-rate so much of it seemed. The big names mostly folded and failed to score. The big teams fell apart, in the case of France shamefully. The kicking and passing was too often sloppy and erratic. I was naturally pulling for an African team, any African team, which provided some thrilling moments, but really they're not yet contenders.
What were we left with? Up and down the field. Down and up the field. Back and forth. Forth and back. The rare goal. If you could stay awake long enough, the intermittent dangerous shot on goal. The occasional bravura save by the keeper. For entire afternoons, it sometimes seemed, the game was stalled in the middle of the field, nowhere near either goal or any excitement.
Many of these players make more money than entire African countries. Yet everyone recognizes the shameless antics of even the best and richest of them, theatrically faking crippling injuries until they resume play without even a limp. Everyone agrees that FIFA's luddite-like refusal to use instant replays is responsible for gross injustices. These, I learned, are long-standing grievances of soccer lovers that somehow don't dampen their ardour for the game.
But I hadn't realized how much sheer luck was involved in soccer. All those corner kicks, all those booming keeper kicks to the other end of the field, are nothing more than soccer's equivalent of football's Hail Mary plays. You kick the ball into a huge gaggle of players and pray that one of your own team gets to it first. Often as not they don't. Where's the skill?
For South Africa, the euphoria will quickly evaporate to be replaced by harsh realities. A government that can't supply electricity and sanitation to its citizens will now seriously consider an Olympic bid.
Nor did I recognize how much fouling there was on every play and how completely arbitrary the referee's calls were. Of course this is only too true of pro hockey, football and basketball too. If refs were to call out every infraction, all these sports would grind to a halt. In every World Cup game I saw there was constant contact - pushing, grabbing, clutching, kicking, clobbering, kneeing - the vast majority of it neither carded nor noted by the announcers. I guess everyone involved knows the unwritten rules at play. In the beautiful game, some fouls are fair.
And I hadn't realized how much sheer lousy sportsmanship goes on and how the fans relish it. The Dutch team - the Broad Street Bullies of our generation - is cheered by their countrymen like conquering heroes after one of the dirtiest finals in World Cup history. The German goalie knows England's Frank Lampard really scored but rejoices in his team's victory as if they won it fair and square. And all of Uruguay embraces Luis Suarez's outrageous goal-line handball, flagrant cheating that he himself credits to God. There is no shame in the beautiful game.
Me, I'm back to good old-fashioned North American sports. When your granddaughter is named Peyton, your choice is ready-made. Bring on the NFL. Sure it's violent, primitive, misogynistic, militaristic, chauvinistic. But at least it wears its true nature on its sleeve. Hail Mary!
Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and is author of The Betrayal of Africa