South Africa crashed out of the FIFA World Cup™ on Tuesday but won their last match for redemption in the eyes of their fans, while France's loss only compounded their team's woes.
The 83rd-ranked South Africa became the first FIFA World Cup host ever to fail to reach the second round. They came tantalizingly close to a miracle the country dreamed of by defeating ninth-ranked France 2-1 but fell short of the points needed to advance out of their group.
That hardly diminished the enthusiasm among tens of thousands of supporters packed into fan parks, while on sidewalks, each goal was greeted with honking horns, trumpeting vuvuzelas and cheers. "It doesn't matter, we were there, part of it," said Joanne Farrell after watching the France game in Bloemfontein.
For many, disappointment fell second to immense pride at hosting the event and the remarkable show of national unity behind the team. "I think it's been very good for South Africa. It's brought us together again," said 29-year-old Matt Logan at a Cape Town fan park. "The '95 [rugby] World Cup did same thing," he said, referring to Nelson Mandela's support behind the mainly white rugby team, a moment now seen as an iconic gesture of reconciliation.
This is still South Africa's World Cup.
The sentiment was echoed around the nation, with President Jacob Zuma comparing the mood to the euphoria seen when Mandela was released after decades in an apartheid prison. "South Africa has never experienced such vibrancy and jubilation since the release of president Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in 1990," Zuma said in Johannesburg before heading to the game. "We are truly excited by the success and the spirit engulfing the country. For the first time ever in the 16 years of freedom and democracy, we see black and white South Africans celebrating together in the stadiums and fan parks."
Danny Jordaan, CEO of the Local Organising Committee, said South Africans would continue to rally behind the FIFA World Cup even though their team won't play again. "Bafana Bafana are out of the World Cup but they won the hearts and minds of all South Africans and the whole world," Jordaan said. "It may be over for Bafana Bafana but it is not over for South Africa. This is still South Africa's World Cup. We are not going home, the World Cup is happening in our home."