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South Africa's legacy big on stadiums, small on international results

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa - In two or 10, or even 20 years' time a visitor to South Africa might turn to a football fan and ask: "So, what did that 2010 World Cup do for you?"

The South African, with vuvuzela (remember them?) gripped proudly in one hand, could cite increased investment in the country. He or she could maybe say there are more tourists coming than ever before. And, with a satisfied blast on the vuvuzela point out that South Africa has the best stadiums in Africa. "Look at our Soccer City and our Cape Town Stadium."

No doubt about that. All valid points, and thanks FIFA.

But for now perhaps the most important thing is still lacking. The thing that really makes football followers proud — a winning national team.

Nearly four years ago, South Africa was the centre of the football world. Its players bowed out of the World Cup group stage with a bang not a whimper, dancing and singing their way into Free State Stadium on their way to beating former world champion France. A dysfunctional France team, maybe, but South Africa also almost beat Mexico in an exhilarating opening game. No one doubted the hosts belonged at the World Cup.

Now, South Africa is nowhere — not even among the 31 teams that qualified for this year's World Cup in Brazil.

Well, not exactly nowhere. It is on FIFA's radar for an investigation into match-fixing allegations. And it is still in the news at home — for the wrong reasons.

Sports minister Fikile Mbalula last month called the national side "a bunch of losers" and "useless, unbearable individuals" after early elimination on home soil from the lower-level African Nations Championship.

The stark reality for the plastic horn-wielding fans from the big city of Johannesburg down to the shores of Cape Town is that Africa has settled into a football rhythm and South Africa can't keep up, no matter how good its stadiums.

The same five African teams that made the last World Cup — Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria — qualified again. South Africa, with no hosting rights to save it this time, couldn't even win a place in Africa's 10-team final World Cup playoffs, beaten out by Ethiopia, no less.

The last time South Africa qualified for a major tournament it didn't host was 2008. It only returned to the African Cup in 2013 because no one else could fill in for troubled Libya at a moment's notice.

There are other countries who haven't repeated for Brazil: Denmark, New Zealand, North Korea, Paraguay, Serbia and Slovenia. But none of those have the richest football leagues and best facilities on their continents. South Africa does.

The South African team of today plays without its best player after former captain Steven Pienaar gave up internationals to concentrate on his club career with Everton in the Premier League.

The national team is now a compact side drawn mainly from the domestic league, with a sprinkle of Europe-based talent.

So, do fans want too much from their team? Did the World Cup produce unrealistic expectations?

A friendly win over Spain in November — a Spain containing the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and others — says no. It was a game that screamed — louder than the vuvuzelas at Soccer City — of South Africa's potential.

What's missing is a little stability. South Africa hasn't had that in the four years since frantic World Cup preparations were followed by even more frantic attempts to live up to a new reputation. South African football needs to take a deep breath.

Salvation may lie again with former World Cup head organizer Danny Jordaan, now South African Football Association president. Jordaan has delivered before, those six shiny new World Cup stadiums built and finished on time despite all the doubters.

Fans now want to talk more about goals and wins — like Bernard Parker's delightful chip over Victor Valdes and the glorious 1-0 victory over the world and European champion — and less about how many people their Soccer City can hold. Even if it is a very nice stadium.

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Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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