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Jan 3, 2011

This time for Africa

It was an important match, and the first of its kind to take place on the continent. It was tensely contested; there had been some chances, but no rewards. In the 55th minute, he danced down the left and from a ridiculous angle hammered the ball into the back of the net. It caused an eruption, an explosion of smiling hearts and hopeful eyes. African football had been given a face, a name and an identity. It was called Siphiwe Tshabalala.

The first goal of the 2010 World Cup was scored by a man who had fast become a South African sensation and, in that instant, his left boot made him become a global superstar. Tshabalala ignited belief in South Africans for 23 minutes before Mexico equalised but Bafana Bafana still managed to come away with a credible draw to open Africa's first World Cup at the magnificent Soccer City stadium.

Waka Waka - it was time for Africa!

The teams from the continent didn't perform as well as expected, with three of the six - Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria - unable to record a single win in the group stages. Ivory Coast, who were tipped by some as hot favourites to advance, only won one game and while South Africa warmed hearts with a win, it was up to Ghana alone to take African hopes to the next round.

Theirs was a campaign fuelled by sentiment. As the last African representatives in the tournament, they had to shoulder the responsibility of fulfilling dreams of people from Cape Town to Cairo. It was a burden they bore bravely, first by beating USA in extra-time in the second round and then by putting up an almighty fight against Uruguay in the quarter-finals. Luis Suarez's 'Hand of God' moment in the box gave Ghana the opportunity to get to the final four but Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty and the rest is bitter, bitter history.

For most of the world, it was a theatrical introduction to the Black Stars. As much as Ghana were the poster boys for African football at the tournament, they were also doing an outstanding bit of public relations for themselves. Ghana have been on a upward trajectory since the Under-20 team won their World Cup in 2009. They absorbed many of those players into the national side and with a good blend of youth and experience began conquering the continent.

Ghana started 2010 in fine style by reaching the final of the African Nations Cup in Angola. They had an ordinary group stage, winning one out of two games. Group B only had three teams after it was struck by tragedy on the eve of the tournament when the Togo team bus was attacked by rebels in the politically unstable Cabinda province. The team's driver and assistant coach were killed and their reserve goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale was badly injured and may never play again. Togo captain Emmanuel Adebayor retired from international football after the incident and the team withdrew from the tournament.

That incident, a mere six months before the World Cup, raised unfair questions about the state of security in South Africa. While officials were trying to explain that linking the Cabinda uprising to South Africa would be the same as judging American security on the action of the Quebec separatists, Angola ensured that the show went on and Ghana saw their way past both the hosts and Nigeria to book a place against Egypt in the final.

The Pharoahs have made the tournament their own and it was no different in 2010. They did not lose a single game on their way to the final, completed a 4-0 demotion of arch-rivals Algeria in the semis and had the competition's top scorer, Mohammed Gedo, in their ranks. It came as no surprise when they notched up their third successive crown with a 1-0 win over Ghana. The victory wasn't pretty, the match was hard fought and the winner came five minutes from full-time. For Egypt, who did not qualify for the World Cup, it was their way of etching their name permanently into the annals of African footballing history; their seventh overall AFCON title is a record.

Egypt and Ghana were the only two African national sides to make positive history - South Africa's earned ignominy by becoming the first host team to bow out of the World Cup in the opening round - and it was only as the year drew to a close that an African team almost fulfilled Pele's prophecy of winning a World Cup.

Congolese club TP Mazembe reached the final of the Club World Cup after beating Brazilian outfit Internacional. The relatively unknown Mazembe have been African champions for two consecutive seasons and although they have no big names on their books they've been able to retain players for longer than other African outfits because of their budget, which has allowed them USD$10 million a year in salaries.

They ended up being convincingly beaten by Inter Milan in the final but they gave a region of Africa that does not immediately strike one as being rich in talent a spot on the map. Club sides in the north of Africa, especially Egypt and Tunisia, are usually the ones that emerge champions of Africa. When Mazembe, from the financially small area of Lubumbashi in the heart of Central Africa, showed their prowess, it showed the depth of potential that still lurks in this continent.

Exposing that potential will prove a challenge in the coming year, as 2011 has no World Cup, no AFCON and so no stage for Africa to show their talent on a global stage. Players like Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba and Gyan will keep some level of African football in the public eye but scandals like FIFA's Amos Adamu's implication in bribery, the constant government interference in Ghanaian football and the Zimbabwe match-fixing allegations will continue to taint the footballing image of Africa. With no occasion to help improve that image, African football will have to be creative in finding a way to build on the positives of 2010 - like Tshabalala's defining goal in the World Cup.

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