TODAY’S dawning of Africa’s inaugural World Cup ranks in history alongside Nelson Mandela’s release and South Africa’s first free elections, the man in charge has declared.
World Cup boss Danny Jordaan also gave the strongest signal yet that 91-year-old former president ‘Madiba’ will be well enough to appear at today’s long-awaited grand opening – though he spoke before the tragic death of Mr Mandela’s great-granddaughter.
Dr Jordaan, who has strived for 16 years to bring football’s showpiece event to Africa, promised this would be the finest World Cup in history.
And he revealed how South Africa was fired up by international scepticism about the their abilities to stage the event – especially cynical taunts from England.
Former sports minister Tony Banks once told him anyone rating South Africa a better World Cup host than England ‘must believe Elvis is still alive and living on the moon’.
A 1,500-strong cast will perform in a two-hour opening ceremony at Johannesburg’s revamped Soccer City stadium this lunchtime, before the hosts kick off against Mexico.
Dr Jordaan, a veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and former MP, yesterday repeatedly ranked the World Cup ‘struggle’ alongside those for freedom and equality.
He expects June 11 2010 to go down in history alongside February 11 1990, when Mr Mandela walked free, and the first post-apartheid elections on April 27 1994.
Dr Jordaan said: ‘Madiba’s release was celebrated as one of the world’s greatest icons.
‘The election was dubbed a miracle of the “Rainbow Nation”.
‘Now this will be another spectacular moment.’
On whether Mr Mandela would make it to Soccer City today, he conceded: ‘It’s a very difficult question.
‘Nelson Mandela himself wants to be there.
‘Whether he stays five minutes or the whole match is not our decision, but as things stand there’s a very very great chance he will be there.
‘We’ll just be happy if he shows his face.’
But that was before the ex-president’s 13-year-old great-granddaughter Zenani Mandela was killed in a car accident in central Johannesburg last night.
The organising committee today expressed their sadness and paid tribute to Zenani, who brought the Confederations Cup trophy on to the Ellis Park podium for the final of last year’s tournament.
Just a few hours earlier before Zenani was killed, three British students died when their tour bus overturned near Nelspruit
The 20-strong party from Leicestershire were not in South Africa for the football, but the accident suggested to some that the country’s roads were still unfit – despite receiving up to £310million of government funds.
The last few days before kick-off had already been marred by a stadium stampede during an international friendly on Sunday and the gunpoint robbery of three foreign journalists on Wednesday.
And preparations have long been dogged by concerns about crime and security, beleaguered healthcare, and whether the ten matchday stadia would be ready in time.
Yet on the football side, total infrastructure investment worth £4billion has helped ensure all ten venues were ready - and among the most distinctive in World Cup history.
Other work delivered on time include widened highways, a new airport at Durban and another air terminal at Johannesburg – while organisers claim to have created 150,000 new jobs.
Cape Town will host a three-day economic summit mid-way through the tournament, hoping to capitalise on the World Cup’s success and attract international investors.
Dr Jordaan vowed visitors and viewers would be wowed by the stadia and other infrastructure and ‘begin to understand what we talked about wasn’t just talk’.
‘It’s a determination to present the best World Cup ever,’ he added.
‘It’s a psychological barrier that’s been crossed – it’s a historical moment that’s being changed.
‘We’ve always said the World Cup must be a celebration.
‘It must help an image makeover, in the country and the continent.’
He admitted feeling frustrated by negative headlines and speculation, but said: ‘You have to be calm and not lose sight of the ultimate aim – that everything will be fine and this World Cup will be great.’
Kirsten Nematandani, president of the South African Football Association, added: ‘Today it feels good to be an African.
‘Today I woke up in a country ablaze with the bright colours of a very special flag.
‘From taxi drivers to gleaming new sports cars, everywhere is alive with the colours of the “Rainbow Nation”, on the brink of a very special celebration.’