Ivan Fallon: A great nation has finally come of age

South Africans this week have been voicing the view that if they can make a success of the tournament, Fifa or no Fifa, they can tackle anything – even crime
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There hasn't been a machete-wielding gang in sight – not even one.

No snake turned up in Wayne Rooney's locker. The only man-eating lions were in game parks and they're far too fastidious to eat an England football fan. And there has barely been a mugger around.

With one weekend to go, the first World Cup to be held in Africa has been a huge success, confounding the pessimists and making the tabloid press in the UK, Germany and – the worst of the bunch – Australia, eat their words. A million visitors have come, seen and had a great time without a finger being laid on them. It was best summed up for me by overhearing an England fan at the England-Argentina game: "It's been awesome. I've had the best holiday ever." He paused, considered: "Well – maybe Vegas." Among the many ecstatic blog comments was one from a German: "This has been better than Japan 2002, and that's saying something." It's amazing how these people get around.

South Africans themselves have been astonished at how well they have done. They were hugely offended by the talk a year ago that the stadiums would not be finished on time and Fifa would take the cup away and give it to Australia. In fact the stadiums and infrastructure have stood up to the most rigorous of tests, one of the few blips being air traffic chaos at Durban's new King Shaka airport on Wednesday caused by planes not being able to land because 200 private planes grabbed all the parking space and refused to move. There has been general praise from the players for the quality of the freshly laid pitches, a major achievement by itself when you consider Wembley still can't get it right. And players and fans alike have been bowled over by the scenery, the enthusiastic welcome from traditionally hospitable South Africans and by the quality of hotels, restaurants and other facilities.

South Africa spent 33 billion rand (£2.9bn) on the cup and will get about £1.2bn back. But early grumbling about the money being better spent on houses and hospitals has given way to the growing realisation that this cup has been about more than money. For something wholly unforeseeable and unexpected has happened in these past few weeks, summed up by an exhausted President Zuma when he took time out from hosting everyone from Vice-President Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Chancellor Merkel and even Queen Sofia of Spain.

"The social benefits are priceless," he said. "We have seen remarkable unity, patriotism and solidarity being displayed by South Africans, which has never been witnessed before."

Many South Africans, white and black, would agree with this. Before the tournament, many – indeed probably most – white South Africans, even ardent sports fans, had never been to a football match, never travelled together, never stood shoulder to shoulder shouting for the same team with the same fervour (or blowing the ubiquitous vuvuzelas). One friend told me he had never been on a train or bus or any other form of public transport before, and was astonished at how easy and convenient it is. "The stations, which I'd only ever seen from the outside, were a revelation."

On Tuesday more than 44,000 people of all colours and creeds trod the fan walk from the city centre to the stadium in Cape Town before the Uruguay-Netherlands game. When Germany played Argentina, more than 153,000 used it. Many middle-class whites didn't even have a ticket – they were just there to soak up the atmosphere. And loving it.

As with all things in South Africa, one always has to add the caveats and the warnings. This weekend Cape Town and Johannesburg seethe with rumours of "xenophobic", a euphemism for "we hate the foreigners who are stealing our jobs and doing crime", action to be taken against the millions of illegal immigrants, three million of them from Zimbabwe, once the visitors have gone home. On the Cape Flats or on the edges of Soweto this weekend, Zimbabweans are packing their meagre belongings and seeking safer refuge, although the police are denying any planned crackdown.

South Africa's many problems are not going to be resolved by the World Cup. Yet there are some good things happening which are strengthening the country's confidence in its own future. One example is the growing evidence that the Aids epidemic may have peaked, a decade before it was projected to. A household HIV survey published last week showed that new infections among 15-24-year-olds has fallen by 60 per cent, not because of anti-retrovirals (which are also having a huge impact) but because of protective measures and changing behaviour.

Privately Fifa officials are taking much of the credit for the success of the games. "In Germany and Japan we had to do very little. Here we had to take everything on, other than the infrastructure. It was a real act of faith." But Fifa, with its arrogant attitude and apparent greed, has left a sour taste. One vendor risked the wrath of Fifa, by printing a T-shirt with the slogan FICK FUFA. He sold out in minutes – before fleeing with his loot followed by the Fifa-driven police.

But South Africans this week have been voicing the view that if they can make a success of the games, Fifa or no Fifa, they can tackle anything – even crime.

In 1995, the Rugby World Cup was a milestone in healing relations between black and white South Africans (see the film Invictus). "This time round the same thing has happened but it has gone much deeper," a former ANC minister says. Whites have embraced the beautiful game and its supporters with it. In the Rugby World Cup, the crowds were at least 95 per cent white. Fifa's ticketing policy meant that the crowds in 2010 have been predominantly white too. But in the fan parks, where people of all hues bonded in front of the giant screens, the whites felt unthreatened and welcome guests at the party. In the New Town fan park in downtown Johannesburg, the mix was probably 80/20, yet there was barely a handful of complaints. More police on the streets, a zero-tolerance policy to crime and speedy court proceedings meant that crime almost disappeared from the streets of Johannesburg. "We've found out it can be done," the ANC man told me. "The government has seen the benefits of that. You'll see lots of middle-class whites leaving their cars at home and travelling on public transport from now on."

The world has witnessed the effects of sport as a uniting force in the past, most noticeably at the Rugby World Cup in 1995. But probably never like this. It has been a great World Cup not just for South Africa – but for sport. Even Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo couldn't spoil it.