Playing for South Africa's pride
I'm writing this on the road to Bloemfontein ahead of this afternoon's duel between France and South Africa. A pale blue sky is shimmering over the endless, parched, spectacular, yellow fields of the Highveldt.
A few minutes ago we stopped for petrol in a small town called Ventersburg. A silver Rolls Royce pulled up next to us and the driver, decked out in a Bafana Bafana - the national team - shirt and chatting on his mobile, gave me a grin and a thumbs up. The service station was full of South African football fans, honking their vuvuzelas, adjusting their yellow and green wigs, and racing to get back on the road south.
"We're playing for pride," said one man, emerging from the cafe. "We never expected to get to the last 16 - we know this is the end for our team. We just want to go out on a high note."
He and his friends agreed that South African fans would now transfer their support to "any other African team that survives - maybe Ghana, or even Nigeria." And if they all drop out? "Then Brazil - half the team comes from Africa anyway."
Two unshaven Frenchmen stepped down from a coach. "What can you expect from a bunch of spoiled, childish, overpaid fools," said one of them, referring to the tensions within the French national team. France has "no chance" of staying in the tournament, they agreed. Today's match was about "l'honneur."
It will be interesting to see how South Africa adjusts from its role as World Cup participant and host, to just host. Will the atmosphere cool and the focus shift away from the tournament? A little, no doubt.
But my sense is that the pride that has enveloped this country over the past fortnight has never really been tied that closely to the fate or performance of Bafana Bafana. This is about South Africa reminding itself, and the rest of the world, what a remarkable country it still is - that the rainbow nation is still capable of miracles.
Last night I went with my family to see Spain run rings around Honduras at Ellis Park. The atmosphere, the football, the organisation, the security - were all fantastic, but for me the best moment came after the match, as we sat on the top deck of a double-decker bus, racing through the dark streets towards the park-and-ride.
The centre of Johannesburg can be a forbidding, dangerous place, especially at night. But from the top deck, with the bright lights of office blocks and cheap hotels all around us, the Hillbrow tower and its floodlit football looming overhead, and the police waving us through every junction, it suddenly felt almost magical.