JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For a month it seemed like all of South Africa was on a high, fueled by a packed schedule of nail-biting soccer games, the buzz of hosting exuberant foreign fans and the pride in defying expectations to pull off a successful World Cup.
This week the country woke up and the party was over. An editorial cartoon by Zapiro, the country’s most famous satirist, portrayed South Africans as nervous parachutists being pushed out of an airplane door labeled “Back to Reality.”
As the last foreign fans straggle home, the feared “World Cup hangover” is setting in — that sense of emptiness and loss as the routine drudgery of everyday life returns.
It is a feeling experienced by soccer fans worldwide, but more intensely in South Africa, where the bursting of the World Cup bubble also means returning to the serious challenges of poverty and unemployment.
In the past month, a transformative wave of patriotism and multiracial unity has enveloped South Africa, most outwardly visible in the deluge of national flags fluttering from cars and buildings.
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Locals embraced the opportunity to walk through neighborhoods they might have feared visiting before, on their way to fan parks and stadiums. They chatted with fellow countrymen of all backgrounds while riding on rough local trains they would normally shun.
Throughout the World Cup, South Africans were recognizing that something special was happening. Clement Moalusi from Soweto was struck by how the entire country, regardless of race, was cheering together for the South African team. And he hoped it would continue after the World Cup.
“From here we need to keep the spirit high,” he said.
The world may have fallen for South Africa, but perhaps more importantly, South Africa fell in love with itself.
“We particularly commend South Africans for embracing each other, making the tournament a powerful nation building tool,” said President Jacob Zuma in a speech to mark the end of the tournament. “We were inspired by the explosion of national pride that accompanied this event.”
In an attempt to keep the vibe going, the successful “Football Fridays” campaign — which saw South Africans of all backgrounds wear national colors once a week in the lead-up to the World Cup tournament — has been extended indefinitely as “Fly the Flag Fridays.” The idea is for the country “to embrace the spirit created during Africa's first, full-color World Cup,” according to Brand South Africa, which promotes the country at home and abroad.
"By continuing to stand together, there is nothing we cannot do," said Brand South Africa Chief Executive Miller Matola.
Zuma said that the government is looking into ways to keep alive the World Cup feeling and sense of social cohesion created by the tournament. He suggested a country-wide party or festival and floated the idea of creating a national prayer.
“We must maintain this spirit. It's not something you can buy,” he told state broadcaster SABC.
Analysts said that the soccer championships and display of patriotism came at a crucial time for South Africa, following months of racial tensions.
Earlier this year, the country made international headlines for the murder of white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche amid fears of racial unrest. Another major national story prior to the tournament was about African National Congress youth leader Julius Malema singing a controversial anti-white song called “Shoot the Boer.”
In contrast, the tournament saw “South Africans of all hues floating on a dizzying cloud nine of racial harmony,” wrote columnist Charles Mogale in the Sowetan newspaper. “For a change, there was hardly any reference to race — it was almost irrelevant that not a single white player took the field for Bafana.”
But he cautioned that now that the World Cup is over, “the fairy tale ends and we will be left to deal with our demons.”