By Gideon Long
NELSPRUIT (Reuters) - The World Cup carnival rolls on in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, but in South Africa's smaller host cities the party is over, the flags are being lowered and even the vuvuzelas have fallen silent.
Nelspruit, Polokwane, Rustenburg and Bloemfontein have all played host to their final matches of the tournament, and Pretoria will join them on Tuesday.
After that, the job of hosting the world's biggest sporting extravaganza will fall to the country's big urban centers.
In Nelspruit, the smallest of the host cities, life is returning to normal.
You still see the occasional team flag fluttering from a car roof or the odd fan wandering through the streets in search of a giant TV screen, but they are few and far between.
On Sunday, only around 300 people gathered in the FIFA fanfest to watch Germany beat England. What a contrast to the scene two weeks ago, when around 7,000 expectant South Africans packed the same area for the opening match of the tournament.
In the Jock And Java, a pub that has become a magnet for fans arriving in this easterly outpost of the country, people are still turning up to watch matches on TV and share a pint with fellow fans, but in nothing like the numbers of a week ago.
Yet still, the World Cup has left its indelible mark.
"It's been overwhelming, it's exceeded our expectations," said Greg Cruse, whose family owns and runs the pub. He estimates that sales during the tournament have been about three times higher than normal, peaking on the days when Chile played Honduras and Australia took on Serbia.
"The opening night of the World Cup when South Africa played Mexico was a record night for us in terms of sales, then the Chileans surpassed that by about 30 percent on the night of their match, and then the Aussies surpassed them by around 35 percent," Cruse said.
"There'll be a lot of staff overtime paid this month."
It is not just the pubs, bars and restaurants that have done well. Hotels and guest houses have been full, and tours to the nearby Kruger National Park have been oversubscribed.
If there is one disappointment though, it is that Nelspruit, like Polokwane, was not given a knock-out match to host. Having seen $140 million plowed in to a new stadium as good as any in the country, the locals would like to have seen it used for a really big clash.
"We could have done with another game, for sure," Cruse said.
But that complaint aside, people in Nelspruit seem to have enjoyed their World Cup experience. As the focus shifts to the big cities, one wonders when this quiet agricultural hub will ever stage anything like it again.
(Editing by Michael Holden)