Like billions of people around the world, I have been engrossed by the soccer fields in Russia, where the top soccer nations are vying to win Fifa’s most coveted prize, one that only comes every four years.
I can’t believe that it is eight years already since we had the privilege of hosting the World Cup, when many of us were able to watch the superstars of the game in action on our doorsteps.
This time, even though we are thousands of kilometres away from the action, the beauty of modern technology means that we can still live, breathe and almost eat the soccer in our living rooms, and in full HD if we are lucky.
The quality of the soccer has not disappointed, with some big nations being upset by smaller nations, such as Iceland holding Argentina to a draw. And Senegal, like so often in the past, had to restore African pride when they beat Poland 2-1 in a game where the young and fast Senegalese exposed the older and more experienced, but slower, Polish players.
Before the Senegal game, all the African countries participating in the World Cup had lost their games and some even lost their second games afterwards, such as Egypt and Morocco, which means that they will have to return home after the group stages.
Judging by the games we have seen so far, it is clear why soccer is universally known as the beautiful game.
It is a pity that South Africans do not treat the game with the same kind of respect like they do in many other parts of the world where people are generally in love with soccer.
If we had respect for soccer, we would never allow our national team to be hijacked by a group of players who appear to be more concerned about their hairstyles, colourful soccer boots and huge egos and salaries than they are about representing their country with pride.
We have become so desperate in South Africa that we even recently celebrated winning the Plate final in the Cosafa Cup, one of the smallest and most irrelevant soccer competitions on the continent.
A Plate final, for those who do not know, is basically the losers’ final. This round of games is made up of the teams who lost out in the first rounds so, instead of sending them home, they are allowed to play against the other losers.
There is nothing to celebrate about winning a Plate final.
But so desperate have we become to celebrate any success in soccer, that we hailed Bafana’s success at Cosafa, even though they effectively went out in the first round and played the remainder of their games in a consolation tournament.
It is good for any nation to have success in sport, because of what it does to the psyche of that nation and the way it can inspire ordinary people to achieve more in life. But it is even more important to have success in soccer because of its global appeal. Soccer dwarves all other sporting codes, by far.
While rugby and cricket, the other big games in South Africa, are played in only a few countries, soccer is played in most countries in the world. This is why the World Cup is the biggest event in the world. Soccer is also one of the cheapest and easiest games to play at a recreational level. You do not need much more than a ball, and not even a soccer ball, to start.
Admittedly, Bafana Bafana have not made us proud in recent years, but this is no reason for us to not continue to try to fix the national team and grow the footprint of soccer beyond the people it is reaching at the moment.
I have always supported plans to make soccer compulsory in all our schools, like rugby is compulsory in many schools, especially those who were historically Model C. More than most other sports, soccer has the ability to create realistic changes in the lives of people who might have grown up impoverished.
But, for me, the most beautiful thing about soccer is its ability to bring people together despite their backgrounds, as can be seen by the beautiful scenes at the World Cup that we have been witnessing on our TV screens every night.
Those with power and influence need to find a way for Bafana Bafana to be restored to its former glory. A fit and winning Bafana can be an inspiration to millions of young people from poor backgrounds that they can also achieve greatness in life.
Soccer can be inspirational, and we don’t have to wait for the World Cup to see its impact.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 23 June 2018)