Football fever at its peak as World Cup safari kicks off

Africa`s long wait finally ends on Friday when the first World Cup on the continent kicks off with the hosts facing Mexico in the opening match.

Johannesburg: Africa`s long wait finally ends on Friday when the FIFA World Cup 2010, the first World Cup on the continent, kicks off with the host nation facing Mexico in the opening match.

South Africa has been brimming with pride and anticipation all week as the Rainbow Nation rides a wave of euphoria not seen since the demise of the apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela`s election 16 years ago.

"There are some moments which define the history of a country. We are on the verge of living one of these moments when the 2010 World Cup gets underway," said South Africa president Jacob Zuma.

"What an honour, what a privilege for our democracy."

Thirty-one of the 32 teams are safely in the country - favourites Spain are to arrive on Friday - as billions of people across the planet get set to tune in and cheer on their favourite stars over the month-long football fiesta.

Bafana Bafana (The Boys) face Mexico at the 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium in Soweto while France and Uruguay clash in Cape Town in the other Group A fixture.

South Africa are banking on huge home support from a crowd blowing deafening plastic vuvuzela trumpets and the presence of the iconic Mandela to inspire South African captain Aaron Mokoena and his team.

Mandela will be joined by around 20 African heads of state at the opening match, including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. US Vice President Joe Biden will also be in the crowd.

Shakira, Black Eyed Peas and Alicia Keys were among the artists who got the festivities underway at a pre-tournament concert in Soweto.

Getting this far has been an achievement in itself for the South African nation, which has overcome a host of difficulties in its six-year journey since being awarded the event.

Many people feared the country would not be ready, with worries over crime, transport infrastructure, accommodation and security.

All that will be put on the backburner at kick-off on Friday, with the chilly Johannesburg weather likely to be the main gripe -forecasters are warning of near-freezing temperatures.

The 63 matches that follow will span the country, from Polokwane in the north-east to Cape Town in the south-west with 10 stadiums being used, culminating in the final at Soccer City on July 11.

The road to all of this began on August 25, 2007 in Oceania when just 60 supporters turned up to watch Samoa play Vanuatu.

Since then, over 20 million fans flocked to stadiums to witness 204 countries whittled down to 32.

Thirty-one of the teams have been here before with Slovakia the newcomer. Minnows New Zealand made it through for the first time since 1982 and North Korea have qualified for the first time since 1966, when England last lifted the trophy.

England are one of the favourites to do it again with Fabio Capello moulding a disciplined team where morale is high, with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry his lynchpins.

But they are without the injured Rio Ferdinand and a patchy 3-0 victory over South African Premier League side Platinum Stars on Monday was not convincing.

They get their campaign underway against the United States on Sunday with Algeria and Slovenia also in Group C.

Reigning European champions Spain boast a wily manager in Vicente Del Bosque and a galaxy of Barcelona and Real Madrid stars, although an injury worry hangs over star midfielder Andres Iniesta.

It comes as no surprise that the Spaniards have been installed as favourites to lift the trophy.

Spain face Chile, Switzerland and Honduras in a first-round Group H that should not prove overly taxing and finishing first may set up an Iberian showdown against Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal.

Ronaldo and company would represent the first potential banana skin for a country that has so often flattered to deceive at the tournament with fourth the best finish, and that was 60 years ago.

Like Spain, no team from Africa or Asia has ever lifted the World Cup, and appears unlikely to do so here.

But the prospects are brighter in South America with five-time winners Brazil leading the pack. They face North Korea first up on Tuesday, with the Ivory Coast and Portugal also lurking in Group G.

Mighty Argentina are an unpredictable element after only just hauling themselves over the qualifying line with Diego Maradona enduring a see-saw ride as coach that has generated more questions than answers.

They are grouped with 2002 semi-finalists South Korea, Greece and Nigeria.

Whichever nation claims the 30-million-dollar prize and world football bragging rights, South Africa will also undoubtedly be winners, simply for hosting such a spectacle for the first time.

Bureau Report

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