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South Africa can hope to emulate earlier World Cup success stories

2010 is the first time the World Cup is being staged on the world's biggest and poorest continent. No one knows what the ultimate impact on South Africa will be, but a look at history shows the effects will be major.

A fan blows a vuvuzela

South Africa hopes that this will be an historic event

When the ball starts rolling on June 11, South Africa will be hoping to show the world a new face, the face of society that has begun to recover from apartheid, where people coexist in relative stability and harmony.

The World Cup can be an ideal forum for improving a country's image, since from its earliest days, football's top competition and the world's premier sporting event has been full of political and cultural significance. But there are negative examples as well.

The second-ever World Cup, in Italy in 1934, went down in history as a massive but transparent propaganda pageant for Mussolini's fascist government - with allegations that Il Duce conspired to fix matches and threatened his national team's life if they failed to win the event.

Likewise, the 1978 tournament in Argentina was criticized as a smokescreen to partially obscure the country's ruling military junta's "dirty war" against dissidents in its own populace.

Historical scene from 1986 World Cup

The 1970 World Cup was such a success that Mexico got another one in 1986

But there are also plenty of examples of World Cups functioning as symbols of rehabilitation for host nations in the eyes of the world.

The 1970 Cup in Mexico, for instance, signaled that Latin American country's emergence from a history of political instability and poverty.

Four years later, the staging of the event in West Germany became a milestone in that nation's long return to return to normalcy after World War II. Likewise, the 1982 tournament was an ideal platform for post-Franco Spain to present its new democracy, especially as the country also joined NATO that year.

And most recently, the 2006 World Cup - regarded, together with Mexico 1970, as one of the best ever - was a fine advertisement for reunified Germany.

In any case, the fact that South Africa has solved the various logistical problems involved in staging the event has some in Europe impressed.

"Everyone agrees the organization has gone well," Matthias Greulich, editor-in-chief of the German football magazine Rund, told Deutsche Welle. "People are positively surprised that in the end, for instance, all the stadiums were finished in time."

Together and apart

fans in front of the brandenburg gate

Thousands of people celebrated at so-called fan miles during the 2006 World Cup

The 2010 World Cup has been accompanied by more than its fair share of pious clichés about people coming together. But as hackneyed as the phrase-making often gets, the World Cup has historically provided an impulse for remarkable instances of reconciliation.

Most notably, in 2005 the government and rebel factions in Ivory Coast returned to the negotiating table after the country's national side qualified for the World Cup in Germany. That led U2 singer Bono to claim, somewhat hysterically, that the World Cup had the power to "stop a war."

But there are also lots of examples of World Cup soccer matches being a force for division.

In 1966, for instance, an ill-tempered match between hosts England and Argentina ended with the Gauchos claiming that they had been ripped off by the referee and England coach Alf Ramsey calling his opponents "animals" and preventing his players from swapping jerseys with them.

That spat predated the Falklands War by 16 years, and every England-Argentina match since then has been fraught with tension.

But more often than not, the tournament has brought people together.

"The 2006 World Cup was the first time that it was acceptable in Germany to show positive patriotism," Greulich said. "I know of lots of foreign journalists who were impressed at how relaxed people here were about celebrating."

Read more about the benefits and pitfalls of hosting the World Cup

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