(Reuters) – “Vuvuzela” trumpets blasted and flags flew proudly across South Africa on the eve of the continent’s first World Cup which Africans hope will transform negative global perceptions of them forever.
In hotels and training grounds across the vast and beautiful nation, players and coaches of the 32 competing nations had their eyes set on an equally lofty goal — lifting the globe’s most coveted sporting prize on July 11.
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma unrealistically urged the local “Bafana Bafana” (The Boys) team to bring him the trophy. But the more likely benefit for the hosts is a lasting legacy of tourism, investment and greater social unity.
South Africa do, though, go into Friday’s opener against Mexico brimming with confidence after a 12-match unbeaten run.
The majority of 90,000 people in Soccer City will be backing Bafana Bafana with a cacophony of vuvuzelas that have already become a symbol of South Africa 2010.
“This is big history, I can’t believe it,” local fan Alice Satege said, shaking with tears as she cheered a team parade.
Pundits expect an exciting match from two sides better at going forward than defending. Uruguay face France in the second match of the 64-game tournament’s opening day.
Just reaching the second round — and not becoming the first host nation of a World Cup to go out at the start — would probably be triumph enough for lowly-ranked South Africa.
Other African nations like Ivory Coast and Ghana have much stronger sides, though the loss of Didier Drogba and Michael Essien respectively are a blow to their chances.
SPAIN, BRAZIL FIRM FAVOURITES
Few expect an end to Europe and South America’s stranglehold on the World Cup, with Spain and Brazil everyone’s favorites.
Argentina have arguably one of the most gifted sides, though their chances could depend on the chemistry between maverick manager Diego Maradona and brilliant forward Lionel Messi.
Usual wild expectations associated with England’s team of Premier League players are tempered this time round after some unconvincing friendlies and injuries to key players. But if they win their Group C, they have a kind draw to the semi-finals.
Former political prisoner and president, Nelson Mandela, 91, firmly intends to make an appearance at Friday’s opening match, hoping to inspire the nation as he did for the Rugby World Cup in 1995 that South Africa won.
The FIFA World Cup, he said in a statement, “symbolizes the power of football to bring people together from all over the world, regardless of language, the color of one’s skin, political or religious persuasion.”
World Cup chief Danny Jordaan told reporters the decision on whether Mandela would appear at Soccer City for South Africa’s encounter with Mexico, would depend on his health on the day.
“He intends to be there,” Jordaan said. “Whether he comes for five minutes or the whole match is not our decision.
“As things stand now there is a very good chance that he will be with us because he wants to be there.”
The party was to officially start on Thursday night with a concert in South Africa’s biggest township Soweto. Shakira, the Black Eyed Peas and Alicia Keys were in the lineup alongside a host of Africa’s best musicians.
Fed up with being associated endlessly with hunger, AIDS and crime, Africans are praying the month-long tournament will counter what they see as old caricatures in world media that fail to grasp the continent’s modern and changing face.
Some robberies against foreign journalists, though, have soured the atmosphere and sent a reminder of local crime levels worse than almost anywhere outside a war-zone.
In the latest incident, Chinese journalists were robbed in their car, embassy officials said on Thursday. That followed a pre-dawn raid on some Spanish and Portuguese journalists while they were sleeping in their hotel.
In another negative for the tournament, an extraordinary injury list keeps getting longer with huge names in global football from David Beckham to Nani missing out.
The latest injury worry was Switzerland captain Alex Frei, who is doubtful for their opener against Spain next week after hurting an ankle in training.
In the camp of little-fancied Slovakia, it was a family affair as coach Vladimir Weiss sought to avoid any accusations of favoritism toward his son and player of the same name.
“I am very strict with him, much stricter with him than other players,” the coach told Reuters on the training pitch in Pretoria. Grandfather Weiss, who also played for the national side and has the same name, enjoys the easiest job now.
“He is sitting at home waiting to watch the matches on television,” the coach said.
Millions worldwide are doing exactly the same.
Spesial thanks to Reuters: (Reporting by Reuters reporters across South Africa, Editing by Ossian Shine)