JOHANNESBURG – Soccer's stars have converged on South Africa from across the globe, but on the eve of the World Cup it is the host nation — with all its flaws and all its wonders — that has seized the spotlight.
Crime is rampant, in shantytowns and posh suburbs. An HIV-AIDS epidemic rages. Yet the welcome for the world — from Cape Town to Soweto — couldn't be warmer, or more proud.
Blaring their plastic trumpets, or "vuvuzelas," and displaying their multicolored flag on their cars and their homes and themselves, South Africans are embracing this historic moment. It's by far their boldest foray onto the world stage since Nelson Mandela formally ended the apartheid era by winning the presidency in 1994.
"It has unified all South Africa," said Irvin Khoza, chairman of the local organizing committee. "It doesn't matter if you're black or white, or if you're close to the sport or not. Everybody in this country is wearing the flag."
The four-week, 32-team tournament opens Friday with South Africa's national squad — a longshot to bookmakers but a favorite to adoring local fans who call it Bafana Bafana — taking on Mexico at Soccer City, the 94,700-seat stadium rising amid old gold mines between Johannesburg and Soweto.
It will be the first time the world's most-watched sporting event is held anywhere in Africa, where soccer fever runs deep, and it takes place in a country that for decades was an international sports outcast, boycotted because of its racist policies.
Brazil and Spain are the favorites to win the title. Other popular teams, according to a worldwide survey released this week by Nielsen Media Research, include former champions Argentina, England and Germany — along with the United States, which was picked to win by 46 percent of North Americans.
Even enigmatic North Korea is here, its unheralded and longshot team qualifying for a World Cup for the first time since 1966 amid a flare-up of tension with its neighbor and fellow tournament entry, South Korea.
A few top stars are absent due to injury, but England's Wayne Rooney is here, as is Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Argentina has arguably the world's best player, Lionel Messi, and the most flamboyant coach, Diego Maradona.
Estimates vary as to how many foreign visitors will come — perhaps 350,000 or 400,000. When ticket sales lagged last month, organizers made more of them available to South Africans, and now nearly all have been purchased.
First-time visitors, if they venture beyond the hotels and stadiums, will see a land of dramatic contrasts: first-world luxury and infrastructure closely coexisting with squalid shacks, a dazzlingly varied landscape of jagged mountains and unspoiled beaches, deserts and vineyards and wildlife preserves. There are 10 stadiums in nine cities across South Africa, with two of them — Soccer City and the long-established 62,500-seat Ellis Park — in Johannesburg.
Racial reconciliation remains a work in progress, yet is remarkable given the white minority's harsh oppression of blacks under apartheid's web of segregation policies.
The end of apartheid was no panacea for the nation's many problems. More than 40 percent of South Africans live below the government-defined poverty line, a quarter of the work force is unemployed. The huge security force mobilized for the World Cup will have its hands full keeping visitors safe, restraining hooligans, monitoring possible terrorist threats and maintaining crowd control to prevent any stadium stampedes.
The government and private businesses spent huge sums renovating airports and building roads, transportation systems and stadiums. Traffic jams are expected, but a new high-speed train linking Johannesburg and its airport opened Tuesday, and a new bus line serves the downtown business district, Soccer City and Soweto.
Newspaper columnist Oupa Ngwenya of The Sowetan, a black-oriented daily, marveled in a column this week at how the projects were completed on time despite widespread doubt.
"Enjoy the games by laughing doubting Thomases out of your lives," he wrote.
In an interview, Ngwenya said a successful World Cup could be a morale booster for the many South Africans struggling with poverty.
"People always talk about how we are part of the global village, but it's never been this close," he said. "You're feeling part of the world. The sense of anticipation is electric."
Heightening that anticipation is the possibility that Mandela, 91 and frail, may make an appearance at Friday's opening ceremony. He's admired worldwide — and deeply beloved by millions of South Africans of all races.
Since Mandela retired from the presidency in 1998, his African National Congress has remained in control of the government and worked closely with World Cup organizers to ensure preparations were completed.
To some critics, the cooperation went too far.
Amnesty International, echoing the complaints of South African activists, said this week that tournament preparations had included increased police harassment of street vendors, homeless people and squatters living or working near World Cup venues.
Dale McKinley, a left-wing activist and writer, said many South Africans were conflicted — aggrieved at the ANC government, yet elated that the World Cup is here.
"It's a sport everybody loves," McKinley said. "It's a dilemma for quite a lot of people. They don't want to be seen as a spoiler."
The pervasive mood seems to be exhilaration. Under a canopy of helium balloons, a euphoric, multiracial crowd greeted the mostly black national team Wednesday when it appeared in Sandton — the heart of Johannesburg's privileged white suburbs.
Young South Africans are thrilled. Their elders share the excitement, with extra perspective.
Simon "Ox" Malhangu, who played pro soccer in the 1970s with the Soweto-based Moroka Swallows, was among many world-class stars who never got to play official international matches for his country because of a sports boycott imposed to protest apartheid.
"To be honest with you, we never thought we'd host such a tournament of this magnitude in our lifetime," Mahlangu, 58, said in a telephone interview. "We're counting ourselves lucky, as people now approaching their 60s, to be hosting such a great event."
The origin of Mahlangu's nickname could apply to South Africa's exertions in hosting the World Cup.
"We South Africans, we say an ox never gives up," Mahlangu said. "When it's given a task, it wants to see that task completed."
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