Trying to decide which of the 63 matches played so far was the best of the 2010 World Cup emphasised the point that any tournament with so few contenders to choose from cannot be considered an outstanding success. Indeed, among the inevitable surprises thrown up was the fact that the organisation was at least as good as the football.
Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the Local Organising Committee, sounded more buoyant than many national team coaches in his review yesterday, and it may be that the Fifa technical committee in making their final report on the actual games find less to commend than he did.
An outstanding last match could yet put some gloss on the competition, which has too often been a dull matt shade over the past few weeks. Indeed, the fear is still that the average number of goals per game will be close to the smallest ever. The rate has reached only 2.24, compared to the record low of 2.21 20 years ago, having been hindered by the eclipse of star attackers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres. This with a football that often had goalkeepers groping like blind men, especially at altitude.
Unlike in 1990, suffocating and ruthless defence appear to have been less of a factor than the lingering demands imposed by club football. There was even a certain level of tactical innovation, by no means entirely negative, as in the 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 employed by some of the South Americans, whose representatives threatened domination at one stage, only to crash and burn. Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay joined their friends in the north from Mexico and the United States in venturing further than many had expected, and most played some pleasing football at some stage.
A successful run by the hosts always invigorates a tournament and in that respect this one disappointed. It was Africa's World Cup every bit as much as Bafana Bafana's, yet at one point all six of the continent's representatives seemed destined for early elimination. To widespread relief, Ghana scraped through and won an exciting knockout tie against the United States before failing by the width of a crossbar to go where no African side had gone before.
They earned much sympathy amid the outbreak of stern morality over Luis Suarez's last-minute handling offence for Uruguay, but overall, for all the colour, atmosphere and droning noise around the many fine stadiums, "home" countries generated less excitement than France in 1998, South Korea and Japan four years later and even the unfancied Germans of 2006.
Perceptions are inevitably coloured to some degree according to nationality, which is why 2010 will be remembered much less fondly in England than in many other countries. Fatigue and the inability to resist pressure shocked Fabio Capello and his vast staff. The idea that he will now turn to a new generation of youngsters ready to take the European Championship by storm, however, is far fetched. Crucially, England still lack top-class performers in key positions, like the midfield holding area, where Gareth Barry was badly exposed; the wide berths where Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott may or may not prove more successful than Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and the ill-used Joe Cole; and even the main striking position in which Emile Heskey was somehow retained and Rooney was a huge disappointment.
Of course, just as few of the 20 Premier League clubs can expect a successful season, so many of the 32 teams at a World Cup will fall below expectation. France and Italy were among them, even though those expectations were generally low; Brazil and Argentina promised more before going the same way, as Europe took a grip. Interestingly, with Argentina the more inventive of the two, Diego Maradona (top right) retained his status as a hero while Brazil's coach Dunga was cast into the darkness, having coaxed neither beautiful nor winning football from his men.
For all that, they played only one bad half. The British journalist who backed Holland to beat them when 1-0 down at half-time in the quarter-final was attracted by odds of 20-1, not belief in Dutch powers of recovery.
By the knockout stage, margins are even thinner than in a Champions' League tie, which at least has two legs. If, as happened in two successive games on that dramatic third Sunday, an official makes a mistake as well as a player, the effect can be profound. So it was with the Germany-England and Argentina-Mexico matches, in which the errors favouring the respective winners may prove more significant in the long term than the unaffected result.
Sepp Blatter suddenly saw a blinding flash in front of his eyes, or heard a message in his headphones, and agreed that the whole matter of goalline technology should be revisited as early as this month. Fifa's general secretary, the younger, more receptive Jérôme Valcke, suddenly suggested that either technology or extra assistants would be on the goalline by the next World Cup in Brazil; which by the standards of football officialdom is moving quite fast. In the future annals of the game's history, that is likely to be the tournament's significant legacy.
"Legacy" has a different connotation for South Africa. Unlike Fifa, who always make a huge profit, the nation claims to have come out just about even on the balance between sums spent staging the tournament and ploughed back into the economy. That may be some small consolation to supporters who were ripped off by profiteering hoteliers and airlines. Improvements to trains, airports and roads will offer continuing benefit to the tourist industry, though the gap between rich and poor remains frightening. "This country will continue to focus on nation-building," Jordaan said. A bid by either Cape Town or Durban to stage the first African Olympics is now being discussed. As ever, there is a serious worry that the newly built stadiums will be under-used, especially in cities where there is already an existing rugby venue.
But "the doubters are believers today", Jordaan has claimed of those who suggested the whole project could become a débâcle. Certainly, sports organisations deciding on international venues are now more likely than before, not less, to turn to Africa, which is a worthy achievement.
Shame about the football? That would be harsh, but a thrilling final this evening, preferably not decided by penalty kicks with the ridiculous jabulani, would do an awful lot for the memory of the 19th World Cup finals.Reuse content