Mexico enter the cooking pot for Cup start

Johannesburg: The once-improbable dream of a World Cup in Africa kicks off on Friday when Mexico face the home team in the deafening cauldron of Johannesburg`s 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium.

The Mexicans will have to contend not only an army of jiving supporters in a frenzy of patriotic fervour but an ear-splitting blast from the biggest array yet of vuvuzela trumpets, the loudest fan instrument on the globe, which severely curtails communication between players and coach.

The stadium, biggest in Africa, has been shaped like a calabash or cooking pot and the Mexicans may feel they have been put on the fire when they meet Bafana Bafana, South Africa`s much improved national team.

Once mocked by even their compatriots as hopeless under-achievers, and still one of the lowest-rated World Cup hosts, at 83rd in the rankings, South Africa come off a run of 12 unbeaten matches and are new national heroes.

Their performance has added to an unprecedented rush of nationalistic excitement in South Africa, which was tormented for years by negative and even domestic pessimism that the world`s most watched sporting event was too big for Africa to handle.

That pessimism has been transformed in recent weeks, encouraged by FIFA`s belated decision to sell tickets for cash, and South Africans of all races can scarcely contain their excitement and pride at being in the world spotlight.

Successfully hosting this tournament for the first time in Africa will mean much more for the hosts than just sport.

Racial Reconciliation

Racial reconciliation, the affirmation of an often troubled post-apartheid nation, future investment and millions of tourist dollars are at stake.

African leaders believe this tournament, a massive logistical undertaking, will enable the continent to overturn stereotypes of disaster, conflict and failure and prove it is a vibrant can-do region ripe for investment and development.

A string of comparatively minor crimes against journalists and three Greek players in recent days have been reminders that security in one of the globe`s most violent countries outside a war zone is one of the tournament`s biggest concerns.

And six people were injured in a crowd crush at Cape Town`s main World Cup fan zone on Thursday when thousands of people tried to get in.

But none of this will dent South African euphoria.

The weight of expectation and the joyful street parades of the last few days could however undermine South Africa`s concentration.

Their Brazilian manager, Carlo Alberto Parreira, said on Thursday they had expected calmness and focus but he could understand the distracting party on the streets.

"I don`t want my players to be affected by all of that. Now we have a World Cup game...we want to make this country proud."

If they can hold their nerve in the midst of the noise and atmosphere -- Soccer City`s bowl design is likely to boost the sound levels -- Mexico do not intend to be a pushover.

Manager Javier Aguirre told reporters they would love to spoil the giant party. "My team has come here to play football, not make friends and do some sightseeing," he said.

But the history book favours South Africa. Mexico have a poor record in opening games, while the two previous starting matches featuring African teams resulted in shock triumphs for Cameroon over Argentina in 1990 and Senegal over France in 2002.

Confidence Boost

Mexico`s confidence has been boosted by a win over defending champions Italy in Belgium last week and good performances against England and the Netherlands in other recent friendlies.

The opening match, starting at 1400 GMT, is likely to see both teams going forward to end a tradition of cautious and dull starts to the tournament.

In Friday`s other game, France are likely to make a nervous start against Uruguay in Cape Town after a series of unimpressive warm up games which ended with a worrying 1-0 defeat by China. They look a far cry from the dominant team that won the World Cup in 1998 and the European trophy two years later.

Uruguay on the other hand, though one of the tournament underdogs, have had an impressive warm-up with wins against Switzerland and Israel.

Bureau Report

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