So close, but not quite enough.
That’s the best way to decribe Bafana Bafana’s 2-1 victory over France yesterday afternoon. But although South Africa impressively notched its first-ever win against the French soccer team, its 1-1-1 record in group play was not enough to move on to the Round of 16.
Cheering on Bafana Bafana for in its last World Cup match was a blast. In their heart of hearts, South Africa’s fans (this one included) were hoping for a repeat of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in which an unlikely South African squad charged to victory on home soil. To make the dream come true, the team had to outscore France by four goals (and therefore achieve the goal differential necessary to place South Africa above Mexico in second place in the Group A standings).
For some time in the first half, the impossible seemed likely. South Africa’s offense was on fire, and the team got a boost from an early red card issued to France that brought the squad down to ten men on the field. In the end, though, Bafana Bafana’s best effort was good enough to send France home without a single World Cup victory, but not enough to prevent South Africa from becoming the first World Cup host nation not to advance out of group play.
In the past two weeks, there’s been a lot written by commentators—foreign and domestic—about this year’s South African team: how they’ve united a nation divided along lines race and poverty, how they’ve injected a sense of enthusiasm into a nation prone to division and contestation, and how they’ve reinvigorated a unique South African pride dormant since the Mandela years.
Part of me wants to believe that these pundits have it right. As I have written in previous posts, it has been incredible to see the excitement that has taken hold in support of Bafana Bafana. In many ways, it appears as if the country stands united. On game days, the streets are flooded with green and gold with vuvuzelas blaring from all corners of the city. And as cliché newspaper stories observe, 16 years after the end of apartheid, black and white South Africans gathered around televisions in bars, cafes, and fan parks to cheer on their team.
But it would be all too simple to say of a country as complicated as South Africa that one game, one team could transcend all of the barriers that divide its people.
Most South Africans live in parallel worlds still painfully divided by the legacy of apartheid. So while cheering on a soccer team in the streets of Cape Town allows for an intersection between these separate lives, it is only temporary and fleeting. When the final whistle blows, a diverse crow of South Africans clad in green and yellow return to neighborhoods, churches, and schools shaped by a history of racial segregation and bogged down by lingering economic disparity.
These rare moments—when the nation stands together— show the power and potential of what is possible in this Rainbow Nation. But they also point out how much work remains. Indeed, South Africa is a work in progress.