JOHANNESBURG (AP) — It’s almost here at last. After years of planning, worry, debate, tension and — perhaps most of all — anticipation, South Africa will host the first World Cup on its continent starting Friday, ready or not.
This diverse nation can hardly wait.
“There are no words to describe it,” Malin Fisher said. “It’s amazing.”
The man should know. A 32-year-old trainee church minister from suburban Johannesburg, he became the first fan to buy World Cup tickets over the counter after waiting overnight outside a shopping mall, sleeping on a camping chair wrapped in blankets. His reward: two seats at the July 11 final.
Fisher is just one example of how this nation of nearly 50 million has gone crazy for soccer, and for this moment when it is at the center of the planet’s attention.
People all over the globe will be watching the monthlong tournament, eager to see what South Africa is all about and if Africa’s first host can pull off such a massive show despite being a developing democracy, just 16 years removed from its first post-apartheid election.
There will be some rough edges. Even last week, highway workers were rushing to finish improvements just down the road from O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
But if the question is whether the South Africans are ready to welcome the biggest event for the world’s popular sport, the answer is a resounding yes.
The new slogan for the main cable sports TV channel is “2010: Once in a lifetime.”
“Feel it, it is here,” says national broadcaster SABC on just about every commercial break.
You can’t go 25 yards without being reminded the World Cup is in town, or where it’s being held. South Africa’s colorful flag flies everywhere — outside apartment buildings, office blocks, and on countless cars.
Posters advertising the tournament are a constant in every major city and most minor towns.
One ingenious entrepreneur is selling covers for the side mirrors of cars — in the colors of all 32 participating nations. Judging by many of the vehicles on the country’s fast-expanding road network there have been plenty of takers.
“It’s close now,” said 45-year Stanley Rikhotso, a taxi driver in Johannesburg, the main commercial city.
He proudly shows off his own mirror covers with their flashes of red, blue, green and yellow — South Africa’s colors. He says they were expensive at $11 for the pair but he had to have them.
“I needed to have something that shows I am South African,” he said, adjusting the elastic tie on one. “It shows that I am proudly South African. This World Cup, it gives us a chance to show who we are.”
The country’s president, Jacob Zuma, appears regularly in the yellow shirt of the national team, Bafana Bafana, and World Cup mascot Zakumi — a hyperactive leopard with spiky green hair — is on TV more than Zuma.
For some time, “soccer Fridays” have allowed everyone to go to work or school wearing a soccer shirt.
Dina Fennell, an accountant, has been faithfully wearing South Africa’s colors under her business suit every Friday.
“My friends tease me that I don’t know that much about soccer,” she said. “I don’t, but I know this is important for us.”
Workplaces and schools have been holding soccer tournaments and lessons on how to blow a vuvuzela — the fans’ plastic trumpet that is certain to provide the blaring soundtrack of this World Cup.
“It’s undoubted that we are on the verge of something truly unique and memorable,” said Irvin Khoza, chairman of the event’s local organizing committee. “Without question this tournament has rallied and mobilized this country like never before.”
A sports-mad nation by nature, South Africa has hosted major events before: the Rugby World Cup, Cricket World Cup and African soccer’s main event, the African Cup of Nations.
But never like this.
Ever since May 15, 2004, when it was awarded the FIFA World Cup, the place has gone into overdrive. New roads, rail and bus networks, new airports, hotels and restaurants, and six new stadiums all have been built.
“We want to make this country better and more united,” says LOC chief executive Danny Jordaan, the man at the forefront of preparations. “Nation-building is what this World Cup is about.”
South Africa’s new stadiums, and especially the 94,700-seat Soccer City on the outskirts of the famous township of Soweto, are a source of great pride. The clay-colored Soccer City will host the tournament opener and the July 11 final and is now the biggest stadium in Africa.
Together, the stadiums alone cost $1.3 billion — for a mere month of soccer. South Africa is not worried about the cost just yet. That can wait.
There have been other problems, though.
Two months ago, 500,000 seats were unsold and South Africa faced a multibillion-dollar event that no one was going to turn up for. FIFA admitted it was worried.
The solution was to put tickets on sale over-the-counter, as opposed to on the Internet. Locals like Malin Fisher, far more comfortable buying this way, responded. Even troubles with the ticketing system, which kept on crashing, hasn’t held back the demand.
FIFA says it is now approaching the numbers of the 1994 World Cup in the United States — the best tournament for ticket sales — though only 40,000 have gone to Africans outside the host nation.
The infrastructure may be in place, just. But will it work?
All 10 World Cup venues have been tested, with mixed results.
South Africa’s exhibition game with Colombia attracted 75,000 boisterous fans to Soccer City. It also attracted traffic gridlock and delays on buses and trains. Some fans who live a 25-minute drive from the stadium say they left for the game four hours in advance and still missed the kickoff.
And the most important part of any major event, safety, is a burning issue in a country plagued by violent crime. To the question of possible terrorist attacks, South Africa’s police force has repeated the same answer: “We are ready.”
“We have prepared ourselves for any eventuality,” Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa has said over and over.
The truth is South Africa can’t practice for a real attack. But it does have help. The international police organization Interpol will make its largest deployment during the tournament.
Yet despite all the unknowns, the possible inconveniences and worse, the vibe in Johannesburg now is one of hope and pride.
“The joy is almost overwhelming,” Jordaan said as he looked toward Friday’s opening match between South Africa and Mexico.
“The tournament’s kickoff will be a huge day for so many South Africans. It will be a moment to cherish, but also a moment to remember our past.”
The leader who guided South Africa from its nightmare of total racial segregation to fledging democracy, 91-year-old Nelson Mandela, is planning to join fans at Soccer City for the opener and final.
“We always anticipated the day Nelson Mandela would walk out of prison,” Jordaan said. “We always anticipated the day we would vote for the first time. And now we anticipate the start of the FIFA World Cup in our country.”