JOHANNESBURG and CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa kicked off the soccer World Cup here with a tense 1-1 draw with Mexico in a brand-new stadium designed to resemble a traditional African cooking pot.
“Welcome home world,” was the message of an opening ceremony which emphasized that Africa is widely recognized by scientists as the continent that was home to the first humans.
The ceremony took place without 91-year-old Nelson Mandela, who was grieving the death of his 13-year-old great-granddaughter in a car accident the night before.
In the opening game, South Africa did their supporters proud and more than held their own in the draw against much better ranked Mexico.
The month-long tournament is the most watched sporting competition in the world, and this is the first time Africa, more publicized for its conflicts, epidemics and poverty, has been entrusted to organize an event of such magnitude.
South Africa hopes the World Cup will showcase the best the country has to offer: spectacular scenery, the continent’s highest-quality infrastructure and a diverse people that has made remarkable progress toward unity since the end of apartheid in the mid-1990s.
“Africa is showing the world that it is capable of handling any matter of the world like all other regions,” said President Jacob Zuma at a World Cup-affiliated concert Thursday in Soweto.
South Africa has Africa's largest economy by far with a GDP of $280 billion and it is counting on the images broadcast around the world by thousands of cameras to entice investors and tourists to visit the country for years to come, but those cameras are also likely to cast a spotlight on the numerous challenges that still face South Africa.
Top of visitors’ concerns is security. Organizers say everything has been done to ensure fans’ safety, including training 40,000 police officers specifically for the event. But South Africa’s average of 50 murders a day — one of the highest murder rates in the world — and frequent robberies are hard to ignore.
Already this week several foreign journalists in the country for the World Cup were robbed at gunpoint in at least two separate incidents. Greek soccer players also reported money stolen from their hotel rooms, and goods were found missing from a tourist bus near Cape Town.
An often-ignored statistic reveals that almost as many people die each day on South African roads as are murdered. A grim reminder of that fact was the death in a car accident Thursday of Mandela’s 13-year-old great-granddaughter as she was coming back from the World Cup concert.
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At football venues security is also likely to face intense scrutiny after a stampede at a warm-up match in Johannesburg between Nigeria and North Korea left a dozen spectators wounded last weekend and six people were injured in a similar event Thursday at a fan zone in Cape Town. Such incidents are not common at soccer games here but have happened in the past. In 2001, more than 40 people were killed in a stampede at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium.
Studies have shown South Africa's crime disproportionately affects the black majority living in townships and poor areas where foreign tourists are unlikely to venture much, but such incidents are sure to perpetuate the widespread image of a country where no one is safe.
None of this was in evidence during Friday’s opening ceremony except for the tragic accident that kept Mandela home.
Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Desmond Tutu, danced among more than 80,000 soccer supporters to the tune of several African performers including Algeria’s Khaled and Nigeria’s Femi Kuti and to the noise of thousands of vuvuzelas, ear-splitting plastic trumpets, in the festivities before the South Africa-Mexico match.
In the second encounter of the day in Cape Town, France and Uruguay produced an uneven performance in Cape Town, drawing 0-0. The highlight of the match — at least as measured by the decibel level of blowing vuvuzelas — was the appearance in the second half of Thierry Henry, whose handball helped qualify France for the World Cup and who apparently remains very popular with fans.
The World Cup has brought some immediate benefits to the people of South Africa. Roads have been improved all over the country, and Johannesburg’s public transportation system now includes a network of shiny buses and a new high-speed train. An estimated 400,000 people have found work in the buildup to the tournament — a substantial number in a country plagued by chronic unemployment.
Estimates of incoming visitors have been revised downward, but consultancy Grant Thornton still expects about 373,000 people to come to South Africa for the tournament and predicts the World Cup will boost the country’s GDP by a half percentage point. Many overseas fans will come from the United States, which had the highest ticket sales outside South Africa.
Despite ongoing concerns about health, crime and unemployment, the World Cup is also viewed at home as a unique opportunity to boost self-confidence and racial unity, and on that front it appears to be already succeeding.
Following a string of encouraging results, South Africans of all races have embraced the national team, the Bafana Bafana (“The Boys”) with vigor. A sea of fans wearing South Africa’s colors assembled Wednesday in Sandton, a posh Johannesburg suburb, to get a glimpse of Bafana players.
A couple of weeks before the first ball was kicked, World Cup organizers also received support from 2,000 sangomas — traditional healers with powers of divination. In a ceremony that took place at Soccer City, the stadium that hosts the opening ceremony and final, a 70-year-old warrior sacrificed an ox, and healers called on ancestors to bless the competition, said praise singer Zolani Mkiva, who organized the gathering and appeared at the beginning of Friday’s opening ceremony.
“It was the blessing of the tournament itself to say that it will happen successfully and that there may be peace, that there may be a celebration that is of benefit to everybody,” Mkiva said. “It’s a blessing to all the teams that will be coming and the leaders of the respective countries.”