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The host nation could be the real winners - whoever lifts the World Cup

The greatest tournament in sport ignored Africa for much of its history. Steve Bloomfield finds out how times changed

The celebrations in South Africa were long and loud the day the country was awarded the right to host the World Cup. It was 15 May 2004, a decade after the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of brutal white minority rule. One month earlier, Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's successor, had been re-elected with 69 per cent of the vote, promising jobs and housing for those left behind in the Rainbow Nation's first 10 years.

The large crowds gathered in front of giant screens in cities across the country, watching the announcement by Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, were euphoric. This would be South Africa's time; an event that proved to the rest of the world that the country had changed for good.

A lot has happened in the intervening six years. Few of Mbeki's promises were met. Unemployment, crime and poverty all remain high. There have been demonstrations, some violent, in townships over the lack of public services. The country has a new president, Jacob Zuma, who had to overcome accusations of rape and corruption before he landed the top job (he was found not guilty of the former, while the latter charges were dropped).

South Africa's ability to host the World Cup has been constantly questioned. There have been complaints over the cost, estimated at £3bn, in a country where the average monthly salary among the black population is roughly £140. The European media, particularly in Britain and Germany, has run endless stories about crime. Some South Africans started to wonder whether the World Cup was worth it.

But as the tournament has got closer, as the stadiums have turned from blueprints to building sites to the finished product, and as the realisation that the best players in the world really will be coming to South Africa, that sense of euphoria has returned. It is not just the idea of hosting one of the world's largest sporting and cultural events, but also the wider opportunities that the World Cup presents.

"It is a very expensive – and very expansive – branding exercise," says Peter Alegi, a historian and author of African Soccerscapes. "The World Cup is an opportunity to show that South Africa is a modern democracy, technologically advanced, business friendly and also an attractive tourist destination."

The World Cup will not just showcase South Africa, it also has the potential to reshape many people's view of the continent as a whole. Most news stories that come out of Africa are negative: wars and humanitarian crises, despots and rebel leaders. From Darfur to Zimbabwe and Somalia to Guinea, when Africa makes the headlines it tends to be for the wrong reasons. Yet this summer Africa will be the backdrop to a month-long "good news" story. For the first time since the World Cup first took place in 1930 it will be held in Africa.

The tournament, often touted as a global festival of football, has ignored Africa for much of its history. Egypt was Africa's first representative in 1934 but it would be another 36 years before another African country was allowed back. Some 17 African countries refused to take part in the qualifying campaign for the 1966 World Cup after football's world governing body, Fifa, refused to guarantee a place for an African team. They relented in 1970 and by 1990 Fifa had grudgingly increased the continent's representation to two.

At that time, South Africa was still living under apartheid rule and was banned from international competition, initially for its refusal to pick a multi-racial team, then as part of the broader sporting boycott of the country. After Mandela's election in 1994 and South Africa's return to the international sporting arena, the national football team had the chance to make up for lost time. In 1996, South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations and against all odds reached the final. More than 80,000 people were crammed into the FNB stadium at Soccer City to watch Bafana Bafana, as the team is known, beat Tunisia 2-0 to lift the African Nations.

Mandela, wearing a Bafana jersey, was there to cheer the team on and present the trophy. A year earlier, the rugby team had won the World Cup, a moment that many cultural commentators argued helped to bring the country together. But the football team, unlike its rugby counterpart, was truly multiracial, from its mixed race goalkeeper Andre Arendse and star striker Mark Williams, to its black midfield playmaker, John "Shoes" Moshoeu, through to its white captain, Neil Tovey.

A continental football tournament had demonstrated the dramatic changes in South Africa to the rest of Africa. Perhaps a global football tournament could have the same effect on the rest of the world.

That was the hope when South Africa first bid for the World Cup. So far, the expected boost to tourism and foreign investment has yet to materialise, in part because influential football figures and journalists in Europe still have strong doubts that South Africa can host a successful tournament. Few of those concerns are valid, says Sean Jacobs, a South African professor of international relations and an avid football fan who writes a blog on culture and Africa ( africasacountry.com). "South Africa has a long history of successfully hosting big tournaments. The Rugby World Cup was one year after the 1994 elections when things were much more tenuous. Whites were still waving the old flag, some were still armed and threatening war."

Since then, South Africa has successfully hosted the cricket World Cup, British Lions rugby tours and football's Africa Cup of Nations. Last year, it hosted cricket's Indian Premier League after the organisers decided it wasn't safe enough to host it in India.

However, the negativity surrounding the tournament, coupled with the impact of the economic downturn, appears to have had a detrimental effect on ticket sales. South Africans have, so far, failed to pick up the slack. Organisers are worried that few South Africans have been able to buy tickets. More than 500,000 are still available and the complicated online process, which also requires a credit card, has so far excluded poorer South Africans.

"It's going to be a big party," says Alegi. "Who's going to be invited is an interesting question."

Tickets are now being sold over the counter, but fears remain that the majority of South African football fans won't be able to afford them. Those that don't get tickets will still find a way to take part, be it watching the matches at official "fan parks" or simply wearing the yellow Bafana jersey and blowing a vuvuzela, the brightly coloured plastic horns that will provide the soundtrack to the World Cup.

The enthusiasm for the tournament, even among non-football fans, is evident every Friday, when hundreds of thousands of South Africans have been wearing the national football shirt to work. "Football Fridays" have quickly become part of South African culture.

"It's historic, right?" says Professor Jacobs. "Hosting the World Cup is a big thing. South Africa is now part of the world again."