Saudat Amanova, a 38-year-old Uzbek kindergarten teacher forced by racist thugs to abandon her home in Kyrgyzstan, seemed all too aware of where global attention had been during the course of her suffering. "If the international community doesn't come help," she told US National Public Radio, "it will be a disgrace to the whole world, which seems to be busy only with soccer." Ms Amanova is right, of course. The 2010 World Cup has given the Spanish a respite from focusing on their precarious economic plight; the English were briefly distracted from the most devastating government spending cuts in a generation; Brazil was more focused on Dunga's capabilities as national coach than on who will succeed President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in October's election. Even for the US, new to all of this, Landon Donovan's thrilling last-gasp winner against Algeria briefly trumped the bad news from the Gulf of Mexico and Afghanistan. And so on.
Football is an opiate that prevents political progress, fretted the British Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in the Guardian, adding that "nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished". Amid his Monty Pythonesque rant, Eagleton did, however, offer an important observation: "Modern societies deny men and women the experience of solidarity, which football provides to the point of collective delirium." That much was obvious to anyone in South Africa, where people of all walks of life and social station expressed an all-too-rare patriotic sentiment, flying the national flag from the windows of late-model BMWs and humble shacks, symbolically joining hands behind the national team, and the pride of hosting a successful tournament in defiance of gloomy predictions abroad.
Wealthy lawyers found themselves discussing Cristiano Ronaldo with their domestic servants; the homeless and the well-heeled all had an opinion on the question of goal-line technology; and when Bafana Bafana were knocked out, many white South Africans joined their black compatriots in pan-African solidarity behind Ghana's Black Stars. A similar effect was visible when the 1995 Rugby World Cup (as captured in the movie Invictus) gave black and white South Africans a common national narrative to ease the transition away from apartheid. And just as in the case of the 1995 rugby triumph, the sense of common purpose created by the football World Cup will almost certainly be a temporary respite from the conflicts produced by South Africa's volatile mix of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
But while Eagleton condemns football for distracting us from misery with an artificial solidarity, that may not be a bad thing - opiates have their place in medicine, after all, to dull pain and allow healing. Sure, the feeling of common purpose ignited by the World Cup may be brief, but it suggests that within us, collectively, lies a spirit of community and solidarity that can help transform ugly political circumstances.
At least, we'd better hope so. Far more dangerous than the distraction of the World Cup, at least here in South Africa as the tournament draws to a close, is what happens when the opiate wears off. In a number of townships around Cape Town and Johannesburg, African immigrants from Somalia, Zimbabwe and other countries have been warned by South African neighbours that pogroms are coming. "We'll get you after the World Cup," is the explicit message, in which foreigners - usually refugees or economic migrants - are warned to leave or be killed by locals unwilling to accept their presence amid competition for scarce resources.
This is no idle threat. Some 62 immigrants were killed and thousands displaced in a bout of xenophobic violence just two years ago, and in some places the thugs haven't bothered to wait for the World Cup to end. The final whistle of South Africa's valedictory match against France was taken as a queue for gangs of young men, still wearing the Bafana Bafana shirt and blowing the vuvuzela horn that the tournament has popularised, to attack and torch Somali-owned stores in the Cape township of Denoon. (Some locals bravely rallied in defence of the foreigners.) The government has reinforced security in some areas threatened by such violence.
The world preoccupied with football, lamented by Ms Amanova in Kyrgystan, may have been something of a relief to hundreds of thousands of African immigrants living in South Africa's black townships. If nothing else, the World Cup has delayed the outbreak of a new wave of pogroms in some parts of the country, and some immigrants even expressed hope that the South Africans' support for Ghana after Bafana Bafana were eliminated from the tournament could portend greater understanding.
Still, nobody doubts that a massive reality check is coming. A week from now, South Africans will find themselves still in the grip of a miserable winter, their economy having slowed to a crawl and little prospect of employment in the next couple of years for millions of people. But even if the solidarity created by the World Cup is temporary, it's not illusory. Instead, the outpouring of enthusiasm for Bafana Bafana - and even for Ghana - by South Africans from across the social spectrum reflects a desire for community that crosses all boundaries. Sure, it's a cost-free unity that ignores the root causes of the society's divisions, but the World Cup has also shown South Africans their better selves, and what becomes possible when national resources and national spirit are mobilised behind a common purpose. And that's no small achievement.
No consolation there for Ms Amanova, of course, but the sad truth is that the world is no more likely to respond to the plight of Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks when the tournament is over than they were when soccer dominated the headlines. Football fever may have only limited powers to make most things better, but it can remind us of our deep-seated desire for community. And it rarely makes any situation worse than it already is.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York who blogs at www.tonykaron.com