South Africa ready for World Cup party

“Vuvuzela” trumpets blasted and soccer chants rang out across South Africa on the eve of the continent’s first World Cup which Africans hope will transform negative global perceptions of them.

Fans celebrate as they wait for the arrival of the South Africa’s national soccer team “Bafana Bafana” during a parade on the streets of Sandton in Johannesburg June 9, 2010.

In hotels and training grounds across the vast and beautiful nation, players and coaches of the 32 competing nations had their eyes set on an equally lofty goal – lifting the globe’s most coveted sporting prize on July 11.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma unrealistically urged the local Bafana Bafana (The Boys) team to bring him the trophy. But the more likely benefit for the hosts is a legacy of tourism, investment and greater social unity.

South Africa go into Friday’s opener against Mexico brimming with confidence after a 12-match unbeaten run.

The majority of 90,000 people in Soccer City will be backing Bafana Bafana with a cacophony of vuvuzelas that have already become a symbol of South Africa 2010.

“This is big history, I can’t believe it,” local fan Alice Satege said, shaking with tears as she cheered a team parade.

Mexican fans laughing and singing under a statue of Nelson Mandela in sunny Johannesburg on Thursday said they had no qualms about spoiling the local party. Other pockets of fans chanted in multiple languages in Nelson Mandela Square.

Uruguay face France in the second match of the 64-game tournament’s opening day. Among foreigners pouring in, none can have taken a more epic journey than a Uruguayan family which has driven 100,000 km across 41 nations in a tiny car since early 2007 before reaching the World Cup by ship.

Spain, Brazil favorites

For lowly-ranked South Africa, just reaching the second round – and not becoming the first host nation of a World Cup to go out at the start – would probably be triumph enough.

Other African nations like Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have much stronger sides, though the loss of Didier Drogba and Michael Essien respectively are blows to their chances.

Few expect an end to Europe and South America’s stranglehold on the World Cup, with Spain and Brazil everyone’s favorites.

Argentina have arguably one of the most gifted sides, though their chances could depend on the chemistry between maverick manager Diego Maradona and brilliant forward Lionel Messi.

Usual wild expectations associated with England’s team of Premier League players are tempered this time round after some unconvincing friendlies and injuries to key players. But if they win their Group C, they have a kind draw to the semifinals.

Away from speculation of what is to come on the pitch, Netherlands winger Eljero Elia sparked possibly the first major controversy of the tournament by appearing to insult Moroccans on a live streaming video.

“I want to apologize … I am not a racist,” he said.

Thieves strike again

Africans are praying the month-long tournament will counter what they see as old caricatures of hunger, AIDS and crime in world media that fails to grasp the continent’s modern face.

But robberies against foreign journalists have undercut that message for thousands of reporters covering the event, giving a reminder of crime as bad as almost anywhere outside a war-zone.

In the latest incident, Chinese journalists were robbed in their car, the embassy said on Thursday.

Another negative for the tournament is an extraordinary injury list full of big names.

The latest scare was over Switzerland captain Alex Frei, who is doubtful for their opener against Spain next week after hurting an ankle in training.

Health-permitting, former political prisoner and president, Nelson Mandela, 91, intends to make an appearance at Friday’s opening match, hoping to inspire the nation as he did for the Rugby World Cup in 1995 that South Africa won. The party was to officially start on Thursday night with a concert in South Africa’s biggest township, Soweto.

In the camp of little-fancied Slovakia, it was a family affair as coach Vladimir Weiss sought to avoid any accusations of favoritism towards his son and player of the same name. “I am very strict with him, much stricter with him than other players,” the coach said on the training pitch.