James Lawton: The football finally came good. The hosts shone from the start

The Independent's Chief Sports Writer on the privilege of watching a joyful World Cup

It seems so odd, now it is over and the streets did not run with blood and the stadiums did not fall down, that so many said, so vociferously, that it was Africa on trial here these last few weeks of the World Cup.

Now we know better. We know it wasn't the South African hosts, a nation of astonishing forbearance and courage, who were so much being tested but those who came with their preconceptions, and not least some of the celebrity footballers who are paid in a few days more than the average township dweller could hope to find in a lifetime.

South Africa has over the last few weeks done what it has been required to do since it emerged from one of the most viciously imbalanced societies the world is ever likely to see with a resolve not to seek revenge but to try to make a more hopeful future.

It just got along, made the best of things and put on a smile that has generally been as bright as the first glimpses of the winter sun which, now the big show is over, will continue to shine down on the workers crowded into the back of the pick-up vans and trucks going to the factories and the farms.

The privilege has not been so much South Africa's but that of all those who have travelled across its vast and thrilling landscape.

Some visitors came with their fears, hermetically sealed, but there were those with open eyes – and hearts – who did not flinch at spending time in a society which had been so persistently alleged to constitute the most severe threat to their safety and peace of mind they were ever likely to face this side of going to war.

Their reward, they have repeatedly told you in airports from here to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and in towns like Rustenburg and Bloemfontein, which may never again feel quite so at the centre of the world, is that they have had the adventures of their lives, experiences which have carried them to a new level of understanding of how other people live with at least a small degree of optimism despite disadvantages which make their own seem, relatively, so slight.

Remember how many warnings heaped up on those fans bold enough to step beyond the antiseptic worlds created so efficiently in Germany four years ago and in Japan and South Korea in 2002? They would need a security detail to cross the street, an armoured car to guard against the possibility of a nervous breakdown while waiting at a set of traffic lights.

The horror stories were projected in the most graphic terms. But the reality has been that Africa not only passed its test but underlined brilliantly the argument that if football is the world game, a living one subject to change and, hopefully, strengthening at some of its weakest, most deprived places, the 19th World Cup must be seen not as some isolated walk into wild, dangerous terrain, but the pattern for a future where the most important yardstick isn't always corporate profit.

No, South Africa didn't drag football into a bloodbath or an orgy of predatory crime. It reminded us of its power to create not just profit but also joy.

However, a lot of the football could have been better, at least before the teams of quality like Spain and Holland and Germany made their moves at the climactic phase of a tournament that in the early going was nearly strangled by excessive caution.

In football terms so much rested on last night's final between Spain and Holland because, if there have been drama and intrigue here, with nothing more fascinating than Diego Maradona's enthralling, ultimately anguished attempt to reignite the most inspiring days of his nation Argentina's life, there was also evidence that in some great football nations many of the lights had, if not gone out, dimmed to a disturbing degree. England, France and Italy trailed away, in various degrees of disgrace before the action became serious, and so a huge burden rested on Spain, the team who came here with the greatest reputation for faith in the beauty of the game. It was to last the course, and in many ways it meant that their most vital challenge was accomplished even before they stepped out against the Dutch last night.

Spain had preserved the idea that football can still produce teams who not only seek to win but also enrich all those who take the trouble to see them attempt to do it.

For so long, many feared that the price of doing so, a mixture of danger, exorbitant cost, rip-off exploitation, was too high – but the loudest word here is that this simply hasn't been so.

Profits have been taken, of course, and the rough estimate is that the ruling body of the game, Fifa, will be £2bn richer when all the accounts are done, but no one ever saw the Swiss-based organisation's operation here as some branch of international foreign aid.

Some of the benefits were not expressly designed but inevitable if South Africa held its nerve – and exerted its good nature.

This it has done so triumphantly that even the wearisome, pervading sound of the vuvuzela – which, by the way, is not some inevitable African cultural expression but the result of an entrepreneurial coup hatched in Cape Town less than a decade ago – has ultimately to be classed as a minor irritation, albeit one that should be ruthlessly expunged in all corners of the sports world where the ebb and flow of action have never before been echoed by a relentless monotone.

Among the visitors, the distinguished American actor Morgan Freeman – whose uncanny portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the film Invictus, the story of the unifying force of South Africa's victory in the 1995 rugby World Cup here, has led to a warm friendship with the great man – has been particularly delighted by the dramatic extension of the message of his work. "Once again," he said over dinner in a Johannesburg restaurant filled with the different languages of the world, "I've seen here the power of sport to unite and lift people."

Once Freeman refused to participate in a "month of black history" and told the leading American TV presenter Mike Wallace, "If you stop referring to me as a black man I will not think of you as a white man." Here, like so many others, he has again celebrated the power of sport, in this case the world's most popular game, to support his point.

Today, South Africa returns to its most grinding problems of unemployment and unacceptably high crime rates – and the fear that when the rest of the world goes about its business, hostility towards millions of immigrant workers will flare into violence in the townships – but it will do so with confidence that for a month in the most intense of spotlights it was able to hold up and show its best face.

Not the least of that was the imprisonment of a leading police official found guilty of corruption in a heavily publicised trial.

There will be no prosecutions against the great footballers who failed to deliver the best of their talent and character here – but maybe some serious reflection on the fact that too many of them seemed insufficiently stirred by the challenge of playing in football's greatest tournament.

Some inside the game fear that it is the inevitable consequence of huge financial rewards and a sense that it is no longer at the World Cup but in such important club competitions as the Champions League that the key players shape their future prospects.

However, there was a not inconsiderable honour roll going into last night's starry collision here between Spain and Holland at the multicoloured Soccer City stadium shaped like an African cooking bowl.

The world's most talented footballer, Lionel Messi, was left in tears by his failure to lift up Argentina, but no one played harder or with more desperation to succeed. Diego Forlan of Uruguay, who has spent much of his professional career trying to put behind him failure at Manchester United, played as a man possessed, right up to Saturday night's defeat in the third-place game against the fast-rising power of a young German team, in which Thomas Müller and Mesut Ozil have displayed extraordinary, precocious talent – and passion.

Spain, inspired by the brilliance of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez made their statement of values and the Dutch, who brought down Brazil, conjured the memory of some of their greatest days as a small but superbly gifted nation with the performances of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben.

Chile, Paraguay and Japan played to their limits, providing the reassurance that coming to a World Cup still represented for some a supreme challenge.

But if we want to put a face to this it has to be, most appropriately, the brave and tortured African one of Ghana's Asamoah Gyan, a hero and a villain who still had the nerve to step up to successfully take a shoot-out penalty against Uruguay despite having missed the one that would have carried Africa into their first World Cup semi-final.

That spoke of Africa's belief in itself, which, whatever happened at Soccer City last night, was always going to be the best legacy of an unforgettable World Cup.

The world's view: What the great and good have said about Africa's first World Cup

"It was a World Cup on a new continent with a new culture and therefore it must be analysed on different levels, but if you look at the enthusiasm in Africa, if you look to the television audiences around the world, if you look to the Fan Fests everywhere in the world, then I have to say it was a special World Cup." - Sepp Blatter Fifa president

"We extend a special thank you to South Africans for the passion and excitement that has kept the tournament alive for the past weeks. We thank you for putting the country first. They are the stars and champions of this tournament." - Jacob Zuma, South Africa's President

"It has been an incredible journey. This World Cup has been about nation- building; seeing a cohesive, non-racist, non-sexist South Africa. When you look at the stadiums, every kind of South African has been present. Everyone has been part of the show." - Danny Jordaan Chief executive of the South African organising committee

"It is obvious that after the experience so far in this World Cup it would be a nonsense not to reopen the file of technology at the business meeting of the International FA Board in July." - Blatter after Frank Lampard's "goal" was disallowed against Germany

"I told the players they had tarnished the image of France. It is a morale disaster for French football. I told them they could no longer be heroes for our children. They have destroyed the dreams of their countrymen, friends and fans." - Roselyne Bachelot, French sports minister after Les Bleus' exit

"We've started celebrating failure in this country and it is a failure. At least we can celebrate that we won a game at home because it would have been a shambles if we hadn't. I hope after this that we start building the team around youngsters, leave aside the prima donnas." - Jomo Sono, Former South Africa coach criticises the home side's performance

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