— All the screaming and shouting and dancing and vuvuzeling are over now, and South Africa is left with nothing but an enormous hangover, a big clean-up operation and a bunch of new stadiums the country still has to pay for.
It is now time for the usual suspects to take the stage and lecture us again about how it was all a colossal waste of money that could better have been spent on important stuff like schools and health care and housing.
I know this because I have been one of those who make such level-headed arguments about spending scarce resources on frivolities like the world’s largest sporting event. I’m here today to say that after watching a sport I don’t particularly love for an entire month and enjoying the experience, I’m ready to confess the error of my ways.
There are many reasons for concluding that even if it cost too much, it was worth it. The first is that Nelson Mandela approved, and if he thought it was a good idea for his country, who am I to argue with him? When it comes to politics and South Africa and pretty much everything about being a human being, he’s got more credibility than even a sports columnist.
Beyond that, this was South Africa’s coming-out party to the world. It wasn’t that long ago — not even 20 years — that the country was the world’s outcast, isolated, boycotted, scorned, ridiculed and reviled for its segregationist policy of apartheid. And now it has successfully hosted the world’s greatest single-sport tournament.
Despite dire predictions, the stadiums were finished on time, the infrastructure improvements got done, security was leakproof and, other than some minor hearing loss, no one got hurt.
Spain won the Cup for the first time, the final was an entertaining — more so for all the fouls — match, an octopus became the Edgar Cayce of soccer psychics and the folks who keep track of such things say that as many as a billion people watched the final match.
Yeah, South Africa needs a lot of improvements in a lot of areas, just like most other countries in the world. Yeah, there are other places the reported $4 billion it took to build all the new stadiums could have been spent.
But this was money spent on an event that riveted South Africa’s attention for years and consumed it for a summer. It was money that made people feel good about themselves and their nation. It brought people from all over the world to a place they otherwise never would have visited. For the past month, I’m sure, life was pretty exciting in South Africa.
Sure, there are always people who get hurt when these events arrive. The homeless get hustled away to someplace where no one can see them. Small-time street vendors lose sidewalk space to people with official licenses.
But if the best argument you can make against a big event coming to town is that the homeless are inconvenienced, you’re going to have a hard time finding a sympathetic ear. For the most part, people loved the show.
That’s enormously important. Despite our high opinions of ourselves, we humans aren’t all that complicated. Large numbers of us get a visceral thrill from sports. Give us a world championship of anything, and we’re impressed. Make it the world championship of the planet’s most popular sport, and we’re helpless to resist.
Americans may be immune to soccer’s siren call, but we’re not immune to the syndrome. Citizens regularly choose to raise their own taxes to bring professional sports to their cities. I could think of a lot of things Oklahoma City could have done instead of build an arena for an NBA basketball team, but the citizens of that town are delighted with the Thunder and pack their games. Who cares what I think?
Humans need bread and we need circuses. It’s not sports or education; sports or health care. We can have sports and we can have the other things. In fact, we do have them.
It’s like splurging for a great dinner. No matter what your income level, if you haven’t spent more money on a meal than you can justify, you haven’t lived. For some, that might mean an Applebee’s. For others, it might be an expensive steak house. No matter how rich you are, there’s always a way to spend too much for a meal; that’s why there are $10,000 bottles of wine. What’s important is that it’s a treat that you remember forever because it was so special.
That’s what South Africa got for its money: an experience unlike any other, an event that it will never forget. The country threw a party for the world, and the world enjoyed the heck out of it.
It cost too much. These things always cost too much. But most South Africans would agree it was worth it.