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Almost here! South Africa awaits World Cup

It`s almost here at last. After years of planning, worry, debate, tension and _ perhaps most of all - anticipation, South Africa will host the first World Cup on its continent starting Friday, ready or not.



Johannesburg: It`s almost here at last. After
years of planning, worry, debate, tension and _ perhaps most
of all - anticipation, South Africa will host the first World
Cup on its continent starting Friday, ready or not.

This diverse nation can hardly wait.

"There are no words to describe it," Malin Fisher said.
"It`s amazing."

The man should know. A 32-year-old trainee church
minister from suburban Johannesburg, he became the first fan
to buy World Cup tickets over the counter after waiting
overnight outside a shopping mall, sleeping on a camping chair
wrapped in blankets. His reward: two seats at the July 11
final.

Fisher is just one example of how this nation of nearly
50 million has gone crazy for football, and for this moment
when it is at the center of the planet`s attention.

People all over the globe will be watching the month-long
tournament, eager to see what South Africa is all about and if
Africa`s first host can pull off such a massive show despite
being a developing democracy, just 16 years removed from its
first post-apartheid election.

There will be some rough edges. Even last week, highway
workers were rushing to finish improvements just down the road
from O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

But if the question is whether the South Africans are
ready to welcome the biggest event for the world`s popular
sport, the answer is a resounding yes.

The new slogan for the main cable sports TV channel is
"2010: Once in a lifetime."

"Feel it, it is here," says national broadcaster SABC on
just about every commercial break.

You can`t go 25 yards without being reminded the World
Cup is in town, or where it`s being held. South Africa`s
colorful flag flies everywhere - outside apartment buildings,
office blocks, and on countless cars.

Posters advertising the tournament are a constant in
every major city and most minor towns.

One ingenious entrepreneur is selling covers for the side
mirrors of cars - in the colors of all 32 participating
nations. Judging by many of the vehicles on the country`s
fast-expanding road network there have been plenty of takers.

"It`s close now," said 45-year Stanley Rikhotso, a taxi
driver in Johannesburg, the main commercial city.

He proudly shows off his own mirror covers with their
flashes of red, blue, green and yellow - South Africa`s
colors. He says they were expensive at USD 11 for the pair but
he had to have them.

"I needed to have something that shows I am South
African," he said, adjusting the elastic tie on one. "It shows
that I am proudly South African. This World Cup, it gives us a
chance to show who we are."

The country`s president, Jacob Zuma, appears regularly in
the yellow shirt of the national team, Bafana Bafana, and
World Cup mascot Zakumi - a hyperactive leopard with spiky
green hair - is on TV more than Zuma.

For some time, "soccer Fridays" have allowed everyone to
go to work or school wearing a soccer shirt.

Dina Fennell, an accountant, has been faithfully wearing
South Africa`s colors under her business suit every Friday.

"My friends tease me that I don`t know that much about
soccer," she said. "I don`t, but I know this is important for
us."

Workplaces and schools have been holding soccer
tournaments and lessons on how to blow a vuvuzela - the fans`
plastic trumpet that is certain to provide the blaring
soundtrack of this World Cup.

"It`s undoubted that we are on the verge of something
truly unique and memorable," said Irvin Khoza, chairman of the
event`s local organizing committee. "Without question this
tournament has rallied and mobilized this country like never
before."

A sports-mad nation by nature, South Africa has hosted
major events before: the rugby World Cup, cricket World Cup
and African football`s main event, the African Cup of Nations.

But never like this.

Ever since May 15, 2004, when it was awarded the FIFA
World Cup, the place has gone into overdrive. New roads, rail
and bus networks, new airports, hotels and restaurants, and
six new stadiums all have been built.

"We want to make this country better and more united,"
says LOC chief executive Danny Jordaan, the man at the
forefront of preparations. "Nation-building is what this World
Cup is about."

South Africa`s new stadiums, and especially the
94,700-seat Soccer City on the outskirts of the famous
township of Soweto, are a source of great pride. The
clay-colored Soccer City will host the tournament opener and
the July 11 final and is now the biggest stadium in Africa.

Together, the stadiums alone cost USD 1.3 billion - for a
mere month of matches. South Africa is not worried about the
cost just yet. That can wait.

There have been other problems, though.

Two months ago, 500,000 seats were unsold and South
Africa faced a multibillion-dollar event that no one was going
to turn up for. FIFA admitted it was worried.

The solution was to put tickets on sale over-the-counter,
as opposed to on the Internet. Locals like Malin Fisher, far
more comfortable buying this way, responded. Even troubles
with the ticketing system, which kept on crashing, hasn`t held
back the demand.

FIFA says it is now approaching the numbers of the 1994
World Cup in the United States - the best tournament for
ticket sales - though only 40,000 have gone to Africans
outside the host nation.

The infrastructure may be in place, just. But will it
work? All 10 World Cup venues have been tested, with mixed
results.

South Africa`s exhibition game with Colombia attracted
75,000 boisterous fans to Soccer City. It also attracted
traffic gridlock and delays on buses and trains. Some fans who
live a 25-minute drive from the stadium say they left for the
game four hours in advance and still missed the kickoff.

And the most important part of any major event, safety,
is a burning issue in a country plagued by violent crime. To
the question of possible terrorist attacks, South Africa`s
police force has repeated the same answer: "We are ready."

"We have prepared ourselves for any eventuality," Police
Minister Nathi Mthethwa has said over and over.

The truth is South Africa can`t practice for a real
attack. But it does have help. The international police
organization Interpol will make its largest deployment during
the tournament.

Yet despite all the unknowns, the possible inconveniences
and worse, the vibe in Johannesburg now is one of hope and
pride.

"The joy is almost overwhelming," Jordaan said as he
looked toward Friday`s opening match between South Africa and
Mexico.

"The tournament`s kickoff will be a huge day for so many
South Africans. It will be a moment to cherish, but also a
moment to remember our past."

The leader who guided South Africa from its nightmare of
total racial segregation to fledging democracy, 91-year-old
Nelson Mandela, is planning to join fans at Soccer City for
the opener and final.

"We always anticipated the day Nelson Mandela would walk
out of prison," Jordaan said. "We always anticipated the day
we would vote for the first time. And now we anticipate the
start of the FIFA World Cup in our country."

Bureau Report

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