x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Thank you, South Africa

The World Cup has been a huge success for the host nation, despite the weather and the ultra-conservative football.

Fans cheer outside Soccer City in Johannesburg after the World Cup opening match between South Africa and Mexico.
Fans cheer outside Soccer City in Johannesburg after the World Cup opening match between South Africa and Mexico.

The opening day of the World Cup was one of the best experiences of my life. I was lucky enough to be invited to Soccer City in Soweto as part of a children's charity alongside Socrates, the great Brazilian. He is an absolute legend, but guess who was recognised all the time because he played for Manchester United? That shows the power of the English Premier League in Africa. The people of South Africa have been among the friendliest and most hospitable I have encountered. Their raw enthusiasm for hosting the World Cup knows no bounds. For decades, cynics sneered and said that Africa would never hold the tournament. So it was a privilege to be in one the best stadiums I have ever seen as 90,000 people watched the opening game.

Africa has proved people wrong. The country has built superb stadiums in incredible locations. Germany had great stadiums four years ago too, but they did not look out to Table Mountain like the one in Cape Town does, or the Indian Ocean like in Durban and Port Elizabeth. Soccer City is overlooked by the slag heaps of the old gold mines in Soweto. They are huge and it amused me that they have tried to grass them over.

The airports are working perfectly, the hotels too. There is a lot of security about and thousands of volunteers, but it is all running well and I have been impressed by the organisation. It is a great World Cup so far and it has been since the first day. The atmosphere inside the stadium for the opening ceremony was like nothing I've experienced before. It wasn't just a big game of football, but a country coming of age. That is genuinely what it felt like.

Black and white fans sat together. They sang and danced and blew their vuvuzela horns until they had no more energy. Much fuss has been made about the constant drone of the vuvuzelas, but they are unique to Africa and we should accept and embrace that. Banning them would be like telling the European fans that they can't chant. That is how South Africans support their teams and it is their World Cup.

Fan culture contributes to the World Cup - the Mexican wave came from the 1986 tournament in Mexico. The fans inside Soccer City were having such a great time and I got goose bumps when I heard their national anthem. It is very long as it contains several of the languages spoken in the country, but what a spectacle. I felt honoured to be there and I believed that the World Cup was really bringing people together.

It was shame that Nelson Mandela could not be there to see South Africa play so well against Mexico, but he had a bereavement in his family and family should come first. I wish I had followed my own advice instead of missing the birth of my son, Devante, to play for Manchester United. The only downsides so far have been the weather - which you cannot control - and the football. The only team who have genuinely impressed me so far have been Germany. Most of the others have disappointing.

Germany started with attacking intent against Australia and never let up for 90 minutes. They got an early goal and played good football thereafter. Miroslav Klose has been the most impressive player in the first round of matches. One problem is that teams are playing too conservatively because they are petrified of losing. I am tired of games being 0-0 at half time. Several teams have been major disappointments. Cameroon were dreadful against Japan. The highest ranked African side, they were bigger and fitter than their opponents, yet they were one dimensional and devoid of ideas. Japan had never won a single World Cup game outside their own country before they beat Cameroon.

What happened with England did not surprise me. Overhyped as ever before the tournament, England had to work hard to get a 1-1 draw against a solid US side who did a number on Fabio Capello's players. England's failure to win brought the kind of knee-jerk reaction you have come to expect from the British media, with wholesale changes being suggested. England are ranked eighth in the world because there are consistently seven better teams. The US have been ranked as high as fourth - far higher than England - in the last five years.

England may expect, but reality should kick in now. They play their second game against Algeria tonight. Anything but a victory will be a disaster. England are good enough and should win to get into a strong position to win the group. I will be at the game and then I have got to meet Princes William and Harry for another charity project. I have enjoyed it all tremendously so far - I just want to see some more exciting football.

Andrew Cole, a former Manchester United player, is the second all-time Premier League scorer with 187 goals. sports@thenational.ae