All Set For World Cup

It has been a testing journey to get this far, one fraught with worries over crime, transport infrastructure, accommodation and security.

But the first-ever World Cup on African soil is now a reality, with billions of people across the planet set to tune in and cheer on their favourite teams over the next month.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said it was now time to focus on the football and be swept along by World Cup fever.

Indescribable anticipation

“Everywhere, one can feel, even you journalists, I hope, that this World Cup is very special, the first on African soil,” Blatter said.

“We find ourselves in a position of indescribable anticipation.

“More importantly, this competition will prove that South Africa, and the African continent in general, is capable of organising an event of this magnitude.”

Three years after qualifying began, the opening game kicks off at the gleaming new 90 000-seat Soccer City in Johannesburg with Mexico playing the hosts.

The 63 matches that follow will span South Africa, from Polokwane in the north-east to Cape Town in the south-west with 10 stadiums being used, culminating in the final at Soccer City on July 11.

The road this far has been dramatic.

It all began on August 25, 2007 in Oceania when just 60 supporters turned up to watch Samoa play Vanuatu.

Since then, over 20 million fans flocked to stadiums to witness 204 countries whittled down to 32, with Uruguay the last to book their ticket.

Thirty-one of the teams have been in the World Cup before, with Slovakia the newcomer. Minnows New Zealand made it through and North Korea qualified for the first time since 1966, when England last lifted the trophy.

Favourites

England are one of the favourites to do it again, with Fabio Capello moulding a disciplined team where morale is high, with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry his lynchpins.

But they are without the injured Rio Ferdinand and a patchy 3-0 victory over South African Premier League side Platinum Stars on Monday was not convincing.

They get their campaign underway against the United States on Sunday with Algeria and Slovenia also in Group C.

Reigning European champions Spain boast a wily manager in Vicente del Bosque, and a galaxy of Barcelona and Real Madrid stars like Xavi and captain Iker Casillas.

Add Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres from the English Premiership elite and it is no surprise that ‘Red Fury’ have been installed as favourites to lift the trophy.

Spain face Chile, Switzerland and Honduras in a first round group that should not prove overly taxing and finishing first may set up an Iberian showdown against Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal.

Ronaldo and company would represent the first potential banana skin for a country that has so often flattered only to deceive at the tournament with fourth the best finish, and that was 60 years ago.

Like Spain, no team from Africa or Asia has ever lifted the World Cup, and appears unlikely to do so next year.

But the prospects are brighter in South America with Brazil leading the pack. They face North Korea first up next Tuesday, with the Ivory Coast and Portugal also lurking in Group G.

Mighty Argentina is an unpredictable element after only just hauling themselves over the line with Diego Maradona enduring a see-saw ride as coach that generated more questions than answers.

They are grouped with 2002 semi-finalist South Korea, Greece and Nigeria.

SA will still be winners

Whichever nation claims the $30m prize and world football bragging rights, South Africa will also undoubtedly be winners, simply for hosting such a spectacle for the first time.

Many people did not think the country would be ready, with suggestions last year that the tournament would be moved.

While a month still remains for things to go horribly wrong, Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the Local Organising Committee, has been in combative mood.

He insists South Africa has already proved the critics wrong.

“They said we are going to run out of money, they were wrong,” he said.

“They said no one would buy tickets for this World Cup, they were wrong… They said people would be too afraid. They were wrong.” AFP