Final preparations for World Cup in South Africa

Johannesburg: South Africa put the finishing touches to its World Cup preparations, rolling out the continent`s first high-speed rail link, as organisers told critics it was time to put doubts aside.

The three-billion-dollar Gautrain began whisking passengers from Johannesburg`s international airport into the uptown Sandton district, just three days before the tournament begins.

The 100-mile-an-hour link will be one of the key legacies of the tournament and is intended to show that Africa can build transport facilities to rival those of anywhere in the world.

"I have been in Johannesburg just for one hour -- the airport and here -- but I really thought this was a first world service," Costa Rican football journalist Gustavo Jimenez told reporters as he stepped off the train at Sandton.

"That`s not only because of the facilities and the building, but also because of how much effort they are putting in to helping users," he added as a security guard helped him hail a taxi to take him to his hotel.

In fact, security guards outnumbered passengers, reflecting the desire by authorities here to deflect fears that a country with one of the world`s highest crime rates is no place to stage the world`s biggest sporting event.

Tickets from the airport to Sandton cost around 13 dollars, a small fortune for most South Africans but much cheaper than the cost of a taxi ride.

And while traffic snarl-ups mean the journey usually takes around an hour, the Gautrain will cover the distance in around a quarter of that time.

Strikes and subsidence problems have ensured that only the terminus at Sandton, a swanky suburb which is home to the Johannesburg stock exchange and a massive shopping mall, has opened in time for the World Cup.

But the train will eventually take passengers into the central business district, the suburb of Rosebank and onto Pretoria, the seat of government.

The highway between Pretoria and Johannesburg is the busiest in the country and the journey can be a two-hour commute at rush-hour, but the same trip on the Gautrain should take just 42 minutes.

Michael Bettendorf, a 27-year-old investment banker from Trier in Germany was another impressed passenger.

"It`s more modern than the trains in Trier. It`s comparable to the trains in the big cities in Germany, but really new," he said.

Worries over crime, transport infrastructure and accommodation have dogged the build-up to the tournament ever since South Africa was granted the right to stage the World Cup six years ago.

But Sepp Blatter, president of football`s world governing body FIFA, told reporters that while the first-ever World Cup on African soil would not be without its flaws, it was time to be swept along by World Cup fever.

"Be conscious of the fact that we are in Africa, even if South Africa is the best organised country on the continent. You can be critical -- that is your right -- but admit that you really feel something here," he said on Monday.

"This World Cup will be marvellous and we are looking forward to the kickoff," said Blatter. "This will be a fantastic World Cup."

"Everywhere, one can feel, even you journalists, I hope, that this World Cup is very special, the first on African soil," Blatter said, before Friday`s kick-off between the hosts and Mexico.

As well as the Gautrain opening, a new train station is opening for football fans in central Cape Town.

Authorities in Johannesburg were also sealing off roads in the downtown area where a giant fan park will play host to thousands of supporters unable to hunt down a ticket for Friday`s opening.

Bureau Report

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