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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.

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.”