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How Africa won the World Cup

The World Cup in South Africa brought hope, joy, tears and anticipation for the entire continent.

Though athletic victories have eluded African fans, progress has not. In South Africa, many of the 44,000 police officers deployed to watch over the throng of foreign visitors -- Argentine and German, British and Brazilian -- will stay in their positions, armed with better skills, equipment and federal coordination. The upgrades to the transit and telecommunications infrastructures will last as well. And though the "white elephant" stadiums in less-trafficked towns such as Nelspruitt and Polokwane will be a sorry reminder of FIFA's misplaced zeal, regional tourism is slated to rise -- and South African President Jacob Zuma has declared that "after this, employment will go up."

While it may be decades before less-wealthy African countries are prepared to host the tournament, the World Cup has been an essential engine for African self-confidence. This is particularly salient in South Africa, whose racial traumas still live in plain sight. As fellow competitors Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon celebrate their half-century of independence (Ghana broke with Britain in 1957, and Algeria with France in 1962), South Africa is catching up in terms of full freedoms. De facto segregation by race and income persists -- especially on the scrubbed beaches of Cape Town.

Of course, spending money on elaborate new stadiums doesn't address the economic disparities that can inflame tension, but the very sight of white Afrikaners rooting for black strikers is a salve of sorts. "Apartheid consciousness for white society is rugby or cricket," says Gareth Colenbrander, a Western Cape resident who supported the Ghanaian team. "2010 consciousness is football."

Before Ghana's Black Stars departed South Africa, they greeted thousands of fans in Soweto and had lunch with former president Nelson Mandela. Though they weren't leaving as champions, they were leaving as heroes.

For many others I encountered, the official outcome was beside the point. Africa wasn't just the world's poorest continent -- it could compete. Perhaps the best assessment came from a wistful Ghanaian fan, who passed on a Zulu phrase to carry home: Hamba phambili. Move forward.

Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for the Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.

From the archives: For a look at why America should embrace soccer and the World Cup, see David Rothkopf's "Our kind of game" (June 13).

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