Crime tempers joy ahead of World Cup kick-off

JOHANNESBURG - South African excitement climbed to a crescendo on Thursday on the eve of the continent's first World Cup but there were reminders of problems that could spoil their dreams of changing Africa's image forever.

Three Greek players had money stolen from their hotel and Chinese journalists were robbed on Thursday, following Wednesday's incident when armed men robbed Spanish and Portuguese journalists at a lodge northwest of Johannesburg.

The incidents were comparatively minor but coming so early were bad news for World Cup organisers who have spent years assuring fans and journalists alike that 41,000 specially deployed police will keep the tournament safe.

Meanwhile, two Britons were killed when a bus overturned in the northeast of country. Although the tourists in the bus did not appear to be World Cup fans, it was a reminder of another problem that has caused concern, South Africa's notoriously dangerous roads and transport problems.

None of this was likely to dent South Africans' frenzied excitement as they revelled in the realisation that the World Cup many had said they could not organise was about to take off.

"Vuvuzela" trumpets blasted and football chants rang out from fans wearing their national colours. South African joy was boosted by news that the father of the post-apartheid nation, Nelson Mandela, was likely to attend Friday's opening ceremony.

Mandela, 91, and in frail health, is widely credited with helping South Africa win the World Cup bid in 2004 and if he does attend the opening match he will inspire the nation as he did when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

A year ago South Africans were accused by FIFA of being too apathetic about the tournament and widely slated their underachieving national side "Bafana Bafana" (The Boys).


Now after an unbeaten run of 12 matches the rejuvenated team are national heroes and pin-ups and go into the opening match against Mexico in Johannesburg's cavernous Soccer City stadium, Africa's largest, brimming with confidence.

They could yet be one of Africa's dark horses in this tournament. President Jacob Zuma urged them, perhaps over-ambitiously, to bring him the trophy.

But even if they fall short, as one of the lowest-ever rated host teams, South Africa expects the World Cup to bring a legacy of tourism, investment, development and greater racial harmony in an oft-troubled nation, 16 years after apartheid ended.

In hotels and training grounds across the wide and beautiful nation, players and coaches of the 32 competing nations had their eyes set on lifting the globe's most coveted sporting prize on July 11, although an extraordinary series of injuries has reduced the odds on some.

The majority of 90,000 people in Soccer City on Friday will be backing Bafana Bafana with what other teams consider a potent secret weapon, the cacophony of vuvuzelas that can deafen and intimidate the opposition.

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 the ritzy Sandton district.

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 who have driven 100,000 km across 41 nations in a tiny car since early 2007 before reaching the World Cup by ship.


Other African nations like Ivory Coast and Ghana on paper have much stronger sides than South Africa, though the loss of Didier Drogba and Michael Essien are a blow to their chances.

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

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 semi-finals.

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 apologise ... I am not a racist," he said.

Africans are praying the month-long tournament will counter what they see as old caricatures of hunger, AIDS and crime and portray the continent as a can-do region worthy of boosted investment.

But the robberies gave an unwelcome reminder on the eve of the tournament that this country is one of the world's most violent outside a warzone.

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.

The World Cup party was to officially start on Thursday night with a concert full of international and African musicians in South Africa's biggest township Soweto.

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