South Africa left with new hope.

On the outward journey, we wondered if South Africa would be worthy of the World Cup. We left for home on Monday with the uneasy feeling that the World Cup had not lived up to the welcome and the facilities provided by its hosts.

They gave us their vast and spectacular new stadiums, their best shot at building an integrated transport system from scratch and their kindness and consideration at just about every turn. We gave them a rubbish final from which only the winners could take genuine pleasure.

In the tradition of gracious hosts, however, they pretended not to notice. A national hangover was predicted for Monday morning, but flags were still flying on cars and buildings as the remains of their 400,000 or so World Cup visitors made for the airports, carrying a variety of memories away with them.

An inkling of how it was going to be came on the day before the opening match, during an impromptu trip to Soweto. In one of that vast township's more remote districts — named Jabulani, the isiZulu word for “joy” appropriated by the manufacturers of the 2010 tournament's official ball — we found a group of small boys who call themselves Jabulani Arsenal, practising under the strict supervision of a teenage girl with a referee's whistle. Their embryonic skills — particularly those of a tiny child, about eight years old, known to his friends as “Little Drogba” — were matched by the enthusiasm with which they discussed their heroes, many of them the stars of Britain's own dear Premier League. They could no sooner have acquired a ticket for a World Cup match at Soccer City, less than five miles [8km] away, than flown to the moon, and they were far away from the soccer academy set up in a more tourist—friendly part of Soweto by a multinational corporation, but their excitement at mere proximity to the event seemed to have a definite value.

This was not, frankly a distinguished tournament in the football sense, not even close to be a vintage year such as 1970 or 1986. The abject failure of the designated superstars — Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Lionel Messi, Kaka and, not least, Wayne Rooney — amused those who like to see the all-powerful shoe companies having their poster campaigns jammed down their throats, but it diminished the quality of the spectacle.

Collective endeavour won this World Cup, which is no bad thing in itself, since football is a team game, but the nature of the final match underlined the fact that the tournament was won by a team who scored only eight goals in their seven matches. That is three fewer than the next lowest total, recorded by England in 1966, when the winners played only six matches, and Brazil in 1994.

Some of the commercial aspects of the tournament were grating, or worse. The iconisation of the Adidas Jabulani ball, a substandard object that came close to ruining the actual play, was as repulsive as the exorbitant price of match tickets. Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg's upscale business and shopping district, is hardly a thing of beauty, but such qualities as it has were swamped when Sony was allowed to plonk a massive dome in its middle. The episode in which private jets were allowed to park all over Durban's new King Shaka airport, preventing commercial flights from landing and stopping several hundred people from attending a semi-final for which they had bought tickets, exposed an unhealthy anxiety to please VIPs.

Those phenomena, along with the theft of a Portuguese photographer's equipment at gunpoint in the early days of the tournament, were the low points — oh, and the final, of course. And that idiot who wandered into England's dressing room and seems to have become a celebrity as a result. The rest was mostly fun and noise.

But five weeks and 64 football matches have changed many people's perception of South Africa, which is why Jacob Zuma's government pledged itself to spend around £3.5bn on stadiums and transport infrastructure and allowed Fifa to walk away from the tournament as the biggest winners of all, with an estimated £2.5bn in tax-free profit.

The best of those soaring edifices — Moses Mabhida in Durban, Green Point in Cape Town, and Soccer City — lifted everyone's spirits, even when they were situated miles away from the places where the people who actually play and watch football live. As a public relations job, the 2010 World Cup looks like paying off in the intangible currency of image and reputation.

Only the blind or the blind drunk — or the England football squad — could have spent some of the last month following the tournament at first hand and not recognised that this is still a country in which only half of all black families have flushing lavatories, 43% live on about £1.50 a day, education is in chaos, public health is a disaster area, an imminent resurgence of the xenophobic violence seen in 2008 is promised, even middle—class homes are surrounded by razor wire and CCTV cameras, and the number of private security guards at work, some 300,000, is double the manpower of the proper police (or it was before the World Cup persuaded the authorities to put 41,000 extra police on the streets in order to reduce the likelihood of embarrassing incidents involving foreign visitors).

But to South Africans of all kinds, and to their guests, the tournament really was an occasion for the shared enjoyment of a simple pleasure. For the inhabitants alone there was the more complicated satisfaction of discovering that, after being dismissed as a potential basket—case when the glow of the Rainbow Nation began to fade, they are capable of taking on the task of holding one of the world's biggest public events.

So many doubts were cast on their ability to bring it off that the sense of relief has been enormous. And now, South Africans are saying, if we can do that at the behest of Fifa, a body that does nothing more than run a ball game, perhaps we can take on important projects for the benefit of our own people. If the 2010 World Cup had any significance beyond football, it was to show South Africa's visitors — and, perhaps, the country itself — that it has no shortage of intelligent, capable, eager young people upon whom, if they are given the chance, a viable future can be built. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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