"The 2010 football World Cup is more than just a simple game. It symbolises the power of football to bring people together regardless of their language, the colour of their skin, their politics or religion''.
These were the inspirational words of 91 year-old former President and political prisoner Nelson Mandela, South Africa's messiah, to FIFA and the millions of football fans tuning in to the opening ceremony this evening in Soweto/Johannesburg.
''Africa is hosting this tournament. South Africa is the stage. South Africa is rocking, South Africa is cool'', was the message coming from current President Jacob Zuma's lips.
Despite the many concerns over the quality of the stadia, levels of security and the host country's transport and infrastructure, fans of the Bafana Bafana and those visiting from other participating nations are riding on the crest of a wave of optimism ahead of tomorrow's opening match to the 19th FIFA World Cup.
A run of twelve unbeaten international matches is the reason behind South African hopes that the host team can not only escape a tricky group, but also progress into the final stages. After all, South Korea finished fourth back in 2002 with a squad only marginally better than what Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has to work with.
This meets with a realisation on behalf of football tourists that perhaps many concerns about the tournament expressed by leading international figures have either been ill-founded or addressed by South African authorities.
So, what can we really expect over the next four weeks? Below are FIVE aspects of the tournament likely to be enjoying column space in leading publications across the globe.
Rejoice — the official World Cup ball is round!
The Adidas 'Jabulani' football (meaning ''rejoice'' in Zulu) will be the centre of attention this summer for many reasons.
Not only is it the ball which will be used throughout the World Cup, but it is also, depending on whose opinions you trust the most, ''supernatural'', ''a disaster'', ''appalling'' or ''good fun''.
Why the fuss? It is perfectly round, similar dimensions and made from similar materials. Don't think for one second that the disgruntled players and managers have had their last word on the issue though.
When Wayne Rooney lost his temper in England's last warm-up match against the Platinum All Stars, South African referee Jeff Selogilwe warned the striker to control his temper better, lest he be targeted by opponents in the tournament. Rooney should know better than most how hard it is to retain composure in the heat of the moment, after his stamp on Ricardo Carvalho proved so costly for England's chances in 2006.
In fact, the World Cup has a history of throwing up surprise referee decisions. After all, if there is anyone feeling the pressure of the intense scrutiny of billions of self-confessed football experts, it is the officials themselves.
Think back to Ray Wilkins seeing red for throwing the ball back to the referee against Morocco in 1986, Sergio Batista being given his marching order for a relatively innocuous challenge on Scotland's Gordon Strachan after 56 seconds of Uruguay's first-round match in the same year, or Rivaldo's scandalous dramatics which earned TurkeyHakan Unsal a red card in 2002.
There will be fierce tackles, abusive language and dramatics galore this summer. The referees will need eyes in the back of their heads if they are to stay out of the spotlight.
Bafana Bafana: carrying a heavy weight of expectation
Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Africa's inspirational Brazilian coach, has led the team to an exciting run of 12 unbeaten international matches, which have included wins over Denmark and Colombia and a 5-0 thrashing of Guatemala.
Although the team is likely to rely heavily on its clutch of Premier League players, which includes Everton's creative midfielder Steven Pienaar as well as Aaron Mokoena and Kagisho Dikgacoi, the support they receive from the vuvuzela-blowing home crowd and the decisions they may receive from officials could see them emulate South Korea's success of 2002.
Although there is no easy match in their group, they can prove a match for Mexico and Uruguay, neither of whom travel particularly well. France proved in 2002 that they are vulnerable, and the lack of support which coach Raymond Domenech has had to endure may see the team fall apart. An opening win tomorrow night will set South Africa on their way and heighten the expectation among their often delirious fans.
Preparing for biological, chemical and nuclear attacks
This is apparently what the American police were drafted in for—t o aid the South African police force to deal with such threats.
The focus would inevitably fall at some point on security concerns for the players, coaching staff, journalists and supporters who will be staying in South Africa over the next four weeks, given the high levels of knife crime, rape and race hate crime which has plagued the country recently and led to the construction of gated communities in urban areas.
Already, we have seen foreign journalists robbed at gunpoint, a mass stampede in a warm-up match and another stampede tonight at a concert gathering. This follows on from Togo's withdrawal from the African Cup of Nations in Angola at the turn of the year.
Authorities have adopted a 'zero tolerance approach' and dedicated RD1.3 billion ($150 million) to security issues. It could yet go either way.
Who will win the clash of footballing cultures?
You only have to take a look at Group B to realise that there is no set formula for winning football matches.
Greece, Nigeria, Argentina and Korea Republic all play football in very unique ways: Greece has a strong defensive unit and good organisational skills, Nigeria's players are forceful and direct, and Argentina are capable of scintillating offense.
In 2002, Korea Republic proved that spirit and support were vital ingredients to success; in 2006, Australia took Italy all the way in the last 16 through a mixture of a strong mentality, experienced coaching and physical fitness.
Will Europe and Latin America's superpowers continue to make World Cup history or is any team from the other continents of the world ready for fame and stardom, to re-write the record books?
Ivory Coast, under Swede Sven Goran Eriksson, and Paul Le Guen's Cameroon team are perhaps the best equipped to go all the way this time, while South Africa is a rapidly improving team under veteran coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who will have the sole honour this summer of having led FIVE separate national sides to a World Cup Finals tournament.
It all promises to be a special few weeks, filled with enthralling football and passionate support. And it all kicks off in less than 24 hours!
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