Messi on stage after spectacular opening

Pretoria: Argentina’s Lionel Messi, potentially the tournament’s most exciting player, takes the stage for the first time on Saturday after South Africa launched a spectacular opening to the continent’s first World Cup.

The globe’s most watched sports event met all expectations on Friday with an outstanding opening match between the hosts and Mexico as South Africans revelled in the pride and excitement of defying the sceptics who said they could never organise a successful soccer spectacular.

The mood of national euphoria was only dampened by sadness over the death in a car crash of the 13-year-old great granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, beloved father of post-apartheid South Africa, whose mourning forced him to miss the opening match.

Even though South Africa were robbed of a dream victory to start the tournament, their thrilling 1-1 draw with Mexico outshone the second match between France and Uruguay which produced a lacklustre goalless draw in the graceful new Green Point stadium in Cape Town, known as the “Mother City.”

But that did little to dent a day of national joy when the deafening blare of vuvuzela trumpets echoed from Table Mountain to Soweto as hundreds of thousands of people crammed bars, homes and special fan parks.

Saturday offers more excitement with the appearance of world player of the year Messi in the first Group B match at 1400 GMT in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park, where Argentina meet Nigeria.

Saturday will also bring an intriguing match between England, one of the tournament favourites and United States, who could be one of its most dangerous outsiders, in Group C’s first match near the sleepy town of Rustenburg northwest of Johannesburg.

The England-U.S. match will probably be the most closely guarded of the World Cup after police said they would be paying it particular attention in case of a terrorist attack -- although they say there is no indications one is planned.

Argentina are clear favourites to win their group with a team crammed with talent headed by the outstanding Messi, although Nigeria have many players from European leagues.

Messi Eagerly Awaited

Together with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s astonishing ball skills are one of the most eagerly awaited sights of this World Cup.

Interest in Argentina, who some pundits say could surprise the favourites if they hit their stride, is equally focussed on ever-controversial manager Diego Maradona.

In his time considered the world’s greatest player, Maradona is an inexperienced and quixotic coach whose questionable decisions were blamed for Argentina’s shaky road to World Cup finals qualification.

England, who some pundits put behind only Spain and Brazil as potential tournament winners despite the loss through injury of captain Rio Ferdinand, and who are notoriously slow starters, face awkward opponents in the much improved U.S. side under seasoned coach Bob Bradley.

They will want to avoid this difficult early hurdle breaking their stride in a year widely seen as their best chance to win the World Cup since their only victory in 1966.

Saturday’s other match is between South Korea and Greece in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth where the main question may be whether fans will fill the beautiful new lakeside stadium -- FIFA has expressed concern that it may be a badly attended match with little local interest.

The opening of the World Cup on Friday was seen by South Africans as a triumphant vindication of their potential to cement a nation that is still riven by racial and wealth disparities 16 years after the end of apartheid.

Tormented by years of scepticism that Africa would not be able to handle the huge logistical challenge of the World Cup, millions of fans were scarcely able to contain their pride at being in the world spotlight.

“It has united the nation ... the Rainbow Nation has gathered together,” said 36-year-old teacher Disebo in the central city of Bloemfontein.

Bureau Report

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