JOHANNESBURG: South Africa began the World Cup party on Thursday with revellers flocking to a star-studded concert and fan festivals on the eve of Africa's first staging of the biggest show on earth.
"This is the real kick-off," FIFA president Sepp Blatter told tens of thousands packed into Soweto's historic Orlando stadium to watch artists including Shakira and the Black Eyed Peas. "Football is not only a game. Football is connecting people."
South African President Jacob Zuma told the crowds that Africa was showing that it was capable of handling events of any size. "Africa is hosting this tournament. South Africa is the stage," said Zuma, 68. "South Africa is rocking. South Africa is cool." But in Cape Town, a police officer suffered a broken leg and two women broke their ankles during in a crush at the entrance to a World Cup party that police said drew 25,000 people with 15,000 others also in the city centre.
"Excess people wanted to get in and started pushing," said police spokesman Frederick van Wyk. "People at the back kept moving forward and a crush ensued." The Soweto concert began with a performance from veteran South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela in a township synonomous with the fight against whites-only rule and the country's first black president Nelson Mandela.
"I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming. It's so beautiful - wake me up!" said Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu, dressed in a yellow South African football shirt and matching bobble hat. At the other end of the country, people crammed into a Cape Town fan park at the same spot from which Mandela first addressed his nation 20 years ago after walking free from prison.
During the apartheid years, South Africa was subjected to an international sporting and cultural boycott. But now the one-time global pariah has the honour of hosting some 300,000 foreign fans, the world's finest footballers and some of the biggest stars in world music. "We are excited. It's exactly what we were hoping for. The infrastructure is improved. Africans always love to have visitors," said Angie Bopape, who had travelled to the concert from Rustenburg, two hours north of Johannesburg.
Vendors packed the sidewalk around the stadium, doing a brisk business in flags and vuvuzelas - the ear-splitting plastic horns which are turning into the tournament's must-have accessory.
"I am amazed with the amount of love and kindness from everyone," said Vicky Becerra, a visitor from Mexico whose team play South Africa in Friday's opening match. "I expected more insecurity to be honest. I want to come back." The sense of anticipation has been increased by the unexpected upswing in form of the Bafana Bafana (the Boys) national side who start the World Cup with a 12-match unbeaten run.
After tens of thousands of people cheered on the team's open-bus parade on Wednesday in Johannesburg, it was the turn of Cape Town on Thursday. "We came here to feel the vibe with the rest of Africa. Just to be here - it's like an experience of a lifetime," said Marks Louw, 23, as he watched performers at the fan fest.
The front-page of the Citizen proclaimed "Bafana Mania!" while an editorial in the same paper said the outbreak of patriotism in a country still struggling to escape a history of racial segregation could only be a force for good. In a message to FIFA, Mandela said the 2010 World Cup was more than "just a simple game". "It symbolises the power of football to bring people together regardless of their language, colour of their skin, their politics or religion."
South Africa has had to fend off claims that its high crime, lack of infrastructure and rudimentary public transport rendered it an unsuitable choice. Work at the 10 host stadiums finished on time while World Cup infrastructure projects are up and running, including Africa's first high-speed rail link.
But a labour dispute by pubic sector workers was looming after deadlocked salary talks. Crime also continued to stalk visitors, with a Chinese TV crew among the latest victims robbed at gunpoint and a spokesman for Greece revealing 1,500 euros in cash had been stolen at the team hotel.
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