The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa was supposed to herald a fresh dawn for African football. When winger Siphiwe Tshabalala scored for the hosts against Mexico in the opening match, the commentator Peter Drury encapsulated the moment for a UK audience: ‘Goal Bafana Bafana! Goal for South Africa! Goal for all of Africa!’ The promise of a truly global game seemed fulfilled. ‘Rejoice,’ Drury exclaimed, as a line of yellow-shirted players danced by the corner flag in coordinated celebration.
Football appeared to be entering a meritocratic era in which traditionally weaker nations could compete with the established powers. South Africa had become a symbol for other developing countries, showing the benefits of economic expansion and national unity. Seen like this, the beautiful game seemed a force for good: colonial residue could be effaced, ethnic discrimination and segregation forgotten. The fact that Mexico subsequently equalised and South Africa exited at the group stage was a mere footnote.
Yet to consider the 2010 World Cup as evidence of African football’s burgeoning health and broader social capital would be a mistake. The spectacle – the cacophony of vuvuzelas, the stadium-based Pentecostal choirs – diverted viewers from the reality. African football was suffering – and it still is.