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World Cup starts with hope, tragedy and a tie

Kick off of world's biggest sports tournament highlights nation's accomplishments, challenges.

South Africa World Cup fans cheer
Supporters of South Africa celebrate their first goal of the 2010 World Cup tournament against Mexico, in Johannesburg, June 11, 2010. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

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.

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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.

Nelson Mandela Foundation, Aug. 17, 2009. Front row, first on the left: Zenani Mandela, who was killed yesterday in a car accident.
(Debbie Yazbek/Nelson Mandela Foundation)

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.