By Aristo Dotse

At this abnormal time when corona virus or Covid-19 has devastated the world and there’s not much to cheer about, even with life and football gradually returning, we can only reflect, with much nostalgia and excitement, on the moment when Africa delivered and made the continent so proud in hosting the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa exactly ten years ago.

South Africa and indeed the African continent were in good place to host the World Cup for the first time in 2006. But this much avowed African dream crushed, bitterly and painfully, because one man, for an unknown reason, decided to deny a whole continent and deal a big blow to its people.

When it was so clear that South Africa had done more than enough in presenting a credible bid, arguably the best of the lot, and convincing and winning much support to land the hosting right for the 2006 World Cup, just like they had done for Cape Town to host the 2004 Olympic Games that eventually went to Athens – that man, Scottish-born Charles Dempsey, inexplicably went against the decision of New Zealand Football, the football governing body of New Zealand, to vote for South Africa but instead decided to abstain for South Africa to lose out to Germany in the end in a tight race at the 2006 World Cup voting decision in 2000.

It was such a painful decision for South Africa and Africa as a whole to lose out in that manner that it attracted the sympathy of FIFA, whose then president Joseph Sepp Blatter decided to fight to ensure the hosting of the World Cup henceforth would be done on rotational basis to ensure Africa also got the opportunity to stage it. Blatter, such a faithful friend and helper of African football, didn’t only fight for rotation of hosting the World Cup to be a reality but also made sure it started with Africa in 2010, after the big disappoint of the continent losing the 2006 event.

‘Ke Nako’ – It’s time for Africa

So the rotation idea, more than any other thing, paved the way for Africa to finally be host of the World Cup for the first time in history, with South Africa overcoming another strong African bid by Morocco to be African ambassadors as host of the World Cup a decade ago.

In South Africa, the rallying call to generate public interest and enthusiasm while awaiting the kick-off of the world football extravaganza in the country and Africa for that matter was “Ke Nako. Celebrate Africa’s Humanity”. ‘Ke Nako’ literally means ‘it’s time’, and indeed it was time for Africa as then South African president Thabo Mbeki said at the launch of the Ke Nako slogan in November 2007, less than three years ahead of the big showpiece in 2010: “We want, on behalf of our continent, to stage an event that will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo. We want to ensure that one day, historians will reflect upon the 2010 FIFA World Cup as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolute. We want to show that Africa’s time has come.”

It was indeed Ke Nako, a powerful slogan that really sunk into South Africans and all Africa and made them really ready to do their bit and contribute to a truly successful World Cup on African soil. Everywhere one went to in South Africa before and during the World Cup, especially the airports, the stadiums in the nine host cities across the country, media centres, broadcasting centres, hotels, lorry stations, road sides, etc., there were more than enough banners and posters depicting the slogan of ‘Ke Nako’, which even became the title for their monthly World Cup magazine or newsletter, and this helped a lot in generating massive national passion, enthusiasm and support for the one-month festival of the best 32 football countries in the world.

An ‘African’ World Cup meant official title sponsorship came from an African company, an indigenous business in the form of MTN – a South African mobile telecommunications company that rules in most of Africa and some countries in Asia and Europe. And they also came up with a precise, powerful, slogan, “We can’t wait”, that helped to generate hunger for the tournament and ultimately whet appetite for the big-do in South Africa. Ke Nako really kept up the passion, but a message like ‘We can’t wait’ even did a better job in pumping up the adrenaline level for the World Cup.

By the time the World Cup finally kicked off on the pitch with the opening match between South Africa and Mexico in Group A on 11 June at the famously magnificent FNB Stadium, rebuilt into the mode of an African calabash to celebrate Africa’s time and renamed ‘Soccer City’ purposely for the World Cup, the long wait that we couldn’t endure was now over and it was indeed ‘Ke Nako’ as the world had descended on South Africa and the rest of the world had its eyes firmly fixed on the amazing, beautiful ‘rainbow nation’ for a month long – 11 June-11 July.

And with the World Cup now on African soil, the chance for the continent to make a very good impact on the pitch, maybe better than in the past, was also here. And so, with South Africa as hosts and five other teams – Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria – representing Africa in what was called “Africa’s World Cup”, the continent had a total of six teams making up the biggest African representation in any World Cup finals. And this also raised hopes for Africa’s chances of doing great in this World Cup at home.

It was with that great confidence that South Africa and Africa started the World Cup against Mexico. And after winger Siphiwe Tshabalala, man-of-the-match in the game, ran onto a pass and set alight Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa and indeed the whole Africa with beautiful, deserved opening goal early in the second half to reward Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side for their energetic performance against the Mexicans, it was thought it would be the beginning of good things to come for the South African team Bafana Bafana. But hold on. It eventually ended 1-1, after a veteran Rafael Marquez goal denied South Africa after Mexico came out strong later in the game that saw a massive crowd of about 84,500 in Johannesburg.

So as South Africa lost a great chance to begin on a winning note and set Africa on a good path in the tournament with that Mexico draw in that opening game that saw Nelson Mandela, who had played a major part in South Africa and Africa getting to host the World Cup at last, back in public appearance for the first time in a long time immediately after famous singers Shakira, R. Kelly and Femi Kuti had shaken and excited everyone with lively performances in a moving and spectacular opening ceremony, it began to unfold it would be a tough time on the pitch for South Africa in Group A.

Failure for the South Africans to win their second game, a 3-0 loss to eventual semi-finalists Uruguay in the South African capital city itself Pretoria, would ensure they failed to qualify for the second round stage to become the first and still the first host nation to exit the World Cup at the group stage, even after a face-saving 2-1 victory over France in Bloemfontein on June 22.

Ghana give Africa something to cheer about

Unfortunately for Africa, South Africa weren’t the only African team that exited at the group stage. They were joined by Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria, leaving Ghana as the only African team and last man standing to carry on the African flag and challenge in ‘Africa’s World Cup’.

Truly, a competition that gave so much hope for Africa to do well also on the pitch unfortunately turned an anti-climax. Generally, Africa’s performance was so bad that it left a lot to be desired. Apart from South Africa making the unwanted record of becoming the first host nation to be eliminated at the grip stage, no African team, except Ghana, was able to win even a game after the first and second rounds of fixtures until the last group matches when South Africa beat France and Cote d’Ivoire beat North Korea at a time it was too little, too late for them.

As for Nigeria (Group B), Algeria (Group C) and Cameroon (Group E), they did not even win one single game and went home with their heads bowed in shame. And Cote d’Ivoire’s only victory – 3-0 – came against North Korea who were such lightweights in the world game making their second appearance in the World Cup after their debut in 1966.

But in the midst of this great African failure was Ghana, who became the lone shining star of Africa’s World Cup. Apart from being the only African country to make the Round of 16 (second round), Ghana was the first and only team to win a game in first round of matches. Also, the Black Stars were the only side to win a game, and not to lose after the first two games.

Ghana become ‘Ba-Ghana Ba-Ghana’ as “Gyan kills Africa in South Africa”

So with all of the continent’s other five representatives, including host South Africa, having fallen by the road side at the group stage, Ghana remained Africa’s only hope until the quarter-final where the Black Stars received unprecedented massive support of all, particularly South Africans – who had renamed the Ghana team as ‘Ba-Ghana, Ba-Ghana’ after their own South Africa team Bafana Bafana – and others who had fallen in love with the Brilliant Black Stars.

Africa, shamefully, have never reached a World Cup semi-final to still remain the only major football continent not to do so. Even, Asia’s South Korea placed fourth when they co-hosted with Japan in 2002. The best effort by any African country in the World Cup finals was by Cameroon and Senegal, both of who reached the quarter-final in 1990 and 2002 respectively.

In South Africa, Ghana had equalled Cameroon and Senegal’s feats after beating the United States 2-1 in Rustenburg and had the best chance of all, of going through to the semi-final for a first-ever African appearance at that stage for a meeting with eventual finalists the Netherlands who had defeated favourites Brazil in their quarter-final encounter earlier that day. But the big opportunity went with the wind, lost by a whisker in such dramatic fashion amid massive disappointment, heartache and even cries at Soccer City. Even worse, there were reported self-inflicted deaths back in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa over the lost opportunity.

With Ghana and Uruguay deadlocked at 1-1 in extra time, after man-of-the-match and player of the tournament Diego Forlan cancelled out Sulley Muntari’s first-half goal in the second half, Ghana got the best opportunity, in fact a gift in the last minute of extra time, to win the match and advance to the semi-final with an awarded penalty and a red card for Uruguay’s ‘saviour’ Luis Suarez, who stopped Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header on the line with his hand.

Initially, the Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca didn’t see it, but his assistant referee did and the penalty was eventually given. Score and Ghana and thus Africa would be in the last four of the World Cup for the first time but disaster for African football was to unfold. Gyan, Ghana’s penalty taker, who had already scored from the spot against Serbia and Australia, grazed the cross bar with his impatient, high kick and the big, big chance went with the wind.

The last kick of the game that would have won the game and changed history rather sent Ghana and Africa into an unwanted penalty shoot-out, which Uruguay won 4-2 to end Africa’s dream in ‘Africa’s World Cup’. Thus, the whole of Soccer City of over 84,000 people went dead and silent upon Ghana’s eventual loss in the shoot-out, with only a handful of sea-blue-wearing Uruguay fans celebrating at the end of it all on that cold night in Johannesburg. And so as cold-feeling, devastated Ghana fans made their way home from Soccer City by road, foot and train, it slowly dawned on them that they had witnessed the most heart-breaking and disappointing moment for African football.

Asamoah Gyan missed penalty against Uruguay in South Africa 2010
Asamoah Gyan missed penalty against Uruguay in South Africa 2010

Not surprisingly, one Nigerian football fan, a taxi driver in Calabar in Nigeria’s Cross River state, would simply sum it up almost seven years later as “Asamoah Gyan killed Africa in South Africa”, in reference to Gyan’s great miss and its consequences for African football. Indeed, the Ghana striker killed Africa on African soil with the big miss, which still hurts so badly.

That penalty miss and Ghana and Africa’s subsequent exit from the tournament was a big opportunity Ghana and Africa may never have again. It was indeed a multi-million dollar miss that will haunt African football for a long time until the continent gets to at least a World Cup semi-final one day, as Stephen Appiah, Ghana’s general captain at the tournament, recently admitted to in a TV interview.

The Brazil-Ghana semi-final that never was

So the highly anticipated or expectant semi-final clash between Brazil and Ghana encounter that would have been a repeat of their Brazil and ‘Brazil of Africa’ second round clash at the 2006 World Cup in Germany never materilaised for the football purists, with particularly Ghanaians and Brazilians, most notably Brazilian TV network TV Globo, most disappointed.

The World Cup reporters of TV Globo in Johannesburg were so confident of Brazil beating the Netherlands and Ghana doing same against Uruguay in their quarter-final clashes that as part of their preparations for that anticipated match-up, they sent one of their reporters to Ghana ahead of the two countries’ respective quarter-final games on July 2. They also engaged this writer in an interview in their studio at the World Cup broadcasting centre in Johannesburg and this was telecast back in Brazil.

But unfortunately for both the Brazilians, who played earlier on the day, and Ghanaians, the Dutch and Uruguayans had other ideas and rather went through to clash in an exciting semi-final game that the Europeans won 3-2 in Cape Town.

New World Cup hosts, new world champions as Mandela makes last ever public appearance

As South Africa was rounding off a spectacular first World Cup finals in Africa, a new country to win the World Cup emerged in Spain who beat Holland 1-0 in extra time in a tough final for their first and so far only World Cup title. Spain also became the second of three countries to win it on another continent. The other two countries are Brazil (1958 in Europe, 1994 in North America and 2002 in Asia) and Germany (2014 in South America).

Spain – clearly the best team in South Africa with their brilliant football throughout the tournament, even though they lost their opening game to Switzerland – and Holland had never won any the World Cup before as they met at Soccer City. Only six teams – Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay and France – had ever won the World Cup since its inception in 1930.

So whoever emerged victorious between the Netherlands and Spain would see South Africa 2010 providing a new and seventh world champion. And after Arjen Robben missed two glorious chances or he was denied by the brilliant Spain goalkeeper, captain Iker Casillas, who considered only one goal in seven matches in the entire finals to be named Goalkeeper of the Tournament, Andres Iniesta made sure Spain won the World Cup with his last-minute goal in extra time.

Ahead of the kick off of the final on 11 July was one moving spectacle that so much thrilled all those who were privileged to be there on that cold night in Johannesburg – truly a world-class city with trees more than any other city in the world, the reason the city is described as the largest ‘man-made forest in the world’. The unexpected appearance of Nelson Mandela in wheel for what would be his last ever public appearance before his death three years later, in December 2013, was one sweet memory about the South Africa 2010 World Cup experience.

Before the final, whether Mandela would grace the occasion with his presence or not was heavily unknown as FIFA couldn’t confirm if he would be there due to his age – he was then only one week away from his 92nd birthday – and poor health at the time. Thus, for him to appear and be taken round the field to greet fans after the closing ceremony displays was a truly fulfilling and satisfying moment.

‘Vuvuzela’ at the World Cup for the first time

One unique feature of the historic 2010 World Cup in South Africa was the sight and sound of what was called the ‘vuvuzela’, a local name for a long, pipe-like instrument, similar to a trumpet, meant to create sound to generate a lively atmosphere.

It was the very first time the World Cup saw a vuvuzela, although it first made its debut a year earlier during the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, which was also staged by South Africa as a dress-rehearsal for the main event itself, 2010 World Cup, and won by Brazil.

A South African fan blowing her vuvuzela at the 2010 FIFA World Cup
A South African fan blowing her vuvuzela at the 2010 FIFA World Cup

The vuvuzela, invented by a South African man from the notorious northern Johannesburg township of Alexandra and who was introduced to the world at the official South Africa organising committee World Cup opening press conference in Johannesburg a day before the World Cup opening ceremony, became one very popular aspect of the four-year extravaganza in South Africa.

Although, quite correctly and truly, the vuvuzela made lots of noise and became somehow a nuisance and distraction to most of the World Cup fans from especially Europe and even to some of the players during matches, it brought up lots of atmosphere on match-days and even on non-match-days. Particularly, the locals really enjoyed it and it gave a special or unique touch to the historic event.

Big credit to South Africa off the pitch

Even before the one month of football came to a conclusion with the World Cup final, the overriding feeling and acceptance among all in South Africa for the World Cup and around the world was that it has been a successful and well organised World Cup, also very importantly off the pitch. This perception was officially confirmed with facts a day after Spain had become new world champions at the final FIFA press conference in Johannesburg’s splendid and plush area of Sandton, where the FIFA World Cup headquarters was located.

At that official World Cup concluding press conference, it was revealed, through then FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke who was flanked by the boss himself Blatter and his FIFA gurus and the South African heroes who made it all happen, Irvin Khoza and Danny Jordaan (chairman and chief executive respectively of the South Africa 2010 Organising Committee), that the 2010 World Cup was one of the most successful World Cups in history and the third most attended World Cup. These were massive pluses for South Africa and Africa as a whole

With world-class cities and impeccable infrastructure like first-class hotels, stadiums, amazing road network, etc., plus a fantastic weather and a willing public, including committed, passionate volunteers of both blacks and whites doing a great job off the pitch, South Africa and Africa truly delivered a historic World Cup. And FIFA and the world are still grateful a decade later.