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South Africa: Fighting a World Cup hangover

Nation works to sustain exuberant spirit and racial unity.

South African flag
South Africans are seeking to sustain the exuberant patriotism and racial unity shown during the World Cup by dressing in the colors of the national flag on Fridays. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

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.”