JOHANNESBURG - The mounting pressure on hosts South Africa ahead of Friday's World Cup opener was ratcheted up a notch with a surprise visit to their Wednesday training session from the country's president.
Jacob Zuma told the team his hands were itching to touch the golden trophy at the end of the tournament, setting a tough target for a team previously written off as no-hopers.
Zuma said he was confident the team would win the tournament, which kicks off at Soccer City on Friday when South Africa meet Mexico.
"I've come here to encourage you that South Africa is a 100 percent plus behind you," he told the players, according to a team spokesman.
Zuma later read a statement from former president Nelson Mandela which said the FIFA World Cup "is more than just a game: it symbolises the power of football to bring people together from all over the world, regardless of language, the colour of one's skin, political or religious persuasion."
Mandela's family has said the globally revered former leader, who turns 92 next month, is increasingly frail and rarely appears in public, could could make a brief appearance at Friday's opening match.
Zuma has already spoken of the unifying force of the World Cup, again demonstrated near the team hotel on Wednesday when thousands lined the roads to greet the players as they paraded around a short route in an open bus.
"South Africa has come alive and will never be the same again after this World Cup," Zuma said earlier in the week.
A run of 12 unbeaten matches since last October has turned the home team into a side with high hopes of reaching the knockout stage, a prospect not thought possible six months ago when they were handed as tough group with Mexico and two former World Cup winners France and Uruguay.
The support for the side has never previously been this vociferous, not even when they won the 1996 African Nations Cup title.
The team also met former president Nelson Mandela, still an iconic symbol in the country, last week. "Just to be in his presence is a big motivation for the team," striker Bernard Parker told a news conference on Tuesday.comments