Once the games began, however, the power of spectacle took over. Besides strikes by security guards, there were few logistical hiccups. Even when the South African team was knocked out of competition early, fans simply shifted their loyalties, in pan-African solidarity, to Ghana. Public schools were let out for the duration of the games, college dormitories were turned over for the use of athletes, and a sense of collective mission prevailed.
This surge of good feeling stemmed from massive public spending on roads, airports, and stadiums in the years leading up to the Cup, which created many construction jobs and helped shield the South African economy from the post-2008 global recession. But the good will also had psychological roots: predicted catastrophe had been averted. Much like the period after Mandela’s election in 1994, the country was in the midst of a cross-racial swoon. South Africa is a sports-crazed society where athletics, like everything else, has always reflected racial divides (cricket was traditionally for English-speaking whites; rugby for Afrikaans-speaking whites and coloureds; soccer for blacks). “The games created a sense that we have gotten over the hill” of racial divisions, the premier of KwaZulu Natal province, Zweli Mkhize, told me at the time. “There’s a huge degree of mutual acceptance, a sense of unity, a very strong sense of national pride.”
A year later, though, reality set in. FIFA officials headed back to Europe with billions in untaxed earnings as South African officials scrambled to cover high maintenance costs for stadiums the country couldn’t use, and struggled to minimize the economic shock of government investment suddenly drying up. In the end, the promised post-World Cup tourism boom never materialized, and South Africa only earned back an estimated $1 billion of the $4 billion that it spent on the games. As the South African writer and soccer fan Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya wrote in a Facebook post last week, “Honest South Africans will accept that spending the amounts of money on a month-long festival that only the wealthy can afford is unjustifiable in a country with huge and immediate social needs.”
Many Brazilians seem to agree—and they’ve arrived at this conclusion before the tournament rather than afterward. In their bid for the World Cup, “South Africans needed more self-esteem,” Marcio Aith, a top advisor to the governor of São Paulo, recently told me. “Here, we’re drunk with self-esteem.”
Earlier this year, shortly after I arrived in São Paulo on a reporting trip to Brazil, a mass demonstration broke out a block from where I was staying, near Praça da República. Based on the images I’d seen on the news of grimacing, bandana-wearing teenagers opposite club-happy military police, I had the mistaken impression that young Brazilians were behind much of the country's unrest. Here, though, were parents with young kids, an aged Asian couple hoisting a poster about the country’s tattered public health-care system, and middle-aged professionals complaining about lack of access to higher education for their children. They were surrounded (and outnumbered) by layers of tense, heavily armed security forces, and they also glanced warily at a phalanx of masked, anti-government Black Bloc militants. Protesters held signs that read, “Não à ditadura!” (No to dictatorship!), in reference not only to decades of military rule but also to proposed legislation for controlling crowds under the guise of anti-terrorism measures.