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Fireworks are launched during a ceremony held ahead of the African Cup of Nations final between Burkina Faso and Nigeria on Sunday night. Alexander Joe / AFP
Fireworks are launched during a ceremony held ahead of the African Cup of Nations final between Burkina Faso and Nigeria on Sunday night. Alexander Joe / AFP

African Cup of Nations: Building the game at home

After hosting three major football tournaments in three years, South Africa are hoping to capitalise while grooming their youth program, writes Ian Hawkey.

As the curtain came down on the African Cup of Nations on Sunday night in Soweto, South Africans queuing to travel home at the smart new bus station at Soccer City remembered their World Cup.

Hosting another major tournament only two and half years after sport's biggest juggernaut had landed in Africa for the first time obliged the country to reflect on 2010's legacy.

This Afcon, hosted in World Cup stadiums, was part of that legacy. Every so often this Afcon recreated, just a little, the highs of a June and July when South Africa had felt like the centre of the world.

The modern buses that run into central Johannesburg from Soccer City are one symbol of the positive infrastructure benefits the country can point to when, from time to time, its citizens wonder at the huge cost - estimated at over US$4bn (Dh14.7bn) - to the public purse of staging a World Cup.

Public transport is an area of huge shortage in South Africa, so it is legacy that matters. The gleaming Gautrain, so clean, fast and efficient as it connects the main international airport, the business and central districts of Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria, that South Africans joke that Germans and Swiss find it intimidatingly comfortable and reliable, was another initiative prompted by the World Cup.

So much for the tangibles. Major events are about the image of a place, too. In the next few days, South Africa will host a major conference of business leaders from the so-called "BRICS" nations.

BRIC is the acronym for Brazil, India, China, and Russia, where economic growth rates have, for periods through the global recession, defied the malaise afflicting the traditional financial big hitters of Europe and North America.

South Africa, the wealthiest country in Africa, aspires to be the fifth member of the BRIC group, the S on the end of BRICS, an economic super-middleweight, at least.

South Africa's success in the nearly 20 years since the political system of apartheid gave way to democracy, first under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, has been startling in many respects. And its strategists have always seen the hosting of major events as an important part of the transformation of international perceptions. Tourism is a major source of income, and modern South Africa has had some negative publicity to counteract.

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Crime figures are still alarming, although the low rate of incidents during the 2010 World Cup - and indeed during the three weeks of the Nations Cup - helped project a picture of a welcoming, not a risky, destination, and the efficient manner with which the country dealt with logistics challenges painted it as a place where business could be done effectively.

And the sport? It is sometimes possible to forget, in an age which foregrounds football's commercial baggage, that World Cups and continental championships are politically and economically important because the game is so popular.

If these events alienate the constituents who in their millions respond to the sport, as fans or players, the bubble bursts, the juggernaut stalls.

That South Africa's own national team only reached the quarter-finals of the 2013 Afcon prompts questions about local football's progress since 2010.

As Danny Jordaan, the former Fifa executive who was architect of bringing a World Cup to Africa and now works for the South African Football Association, admitted in the Johannesburg Sunday Times: "We can organise a World Cup, a Confederations Cup, an Afcon, but we can't organise a junior league. If we are such great organisers, we should be able to pull that off, because we have the funding."

Although Bafana Bafana, as the national team are known, were pleased with the emergence at this Afcon of the young play-maker May Mahlangu, an orphan at 10 years old and now making a career in the Swedish league, South Africa does not look about to unleash a group of teenagers, spurred on by their proximity to a World Cup in their formative years, who will sweep them up the sport's international hierarchy in time for the 2018 World Cup. In six days' time, the smart newish buses will again be shuttling towards Soccer City, though not as many as Sunday night.

Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa's most glamorous local club, will meet Free State Stars at the country's biggest arena as the domestic league, the PSL, resumes. The likelihood is that no more than 20 per cent of seats will be occupied.

Overall attendance at local league matches has not increased since the World Cup. Some of the new arenas, built for 2010, are very irregularly used for professional matches.

In the case of Nelspruit's Mbombela stadium, that may seem a blessing for players. The rough, sanded playing surface there, torturous for the Burkina Faso, Zambia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Togo and Ghana footballers who endured it during the Nations Cup, has not weathered well.

It was good in June 2010, but too much inaction after that almost appeared to leave it forgetful of its main purpose.

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