Global spotlight shines on South Africa as 2010 World Cup set to kick off

After four years of waiting, the 2010 FIFA World Cup is kicking off in South Africa.
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

JOHANNESBURG -- From the moment South Africa was awarded the 2010 World Cup five years ago, there has been far more at stake than soccer. In being chosen to host the world's biggest sporting event, South Africa seized the global spotlight for good reasons rather than bad.

It won an opportunity, for four weeks this summer, to showcase its young democracy and the bonds that bind this improbable Rainbow Nation together.

And it won the chance to prove doubters wrong and change perceptions of a country that less than 20 years ago was deemed a global pariah, banned from the World Cup and Olympic Games because of its policy of racial discrimination known as apartheid.

"Ke Nako," as the 2010 World Cup slogan says. "It's Time."

That time comes Friday, when the 2010 World Cup kicks off at Johannesburg's Soccer City, a 94,700-seat sporting palace constructed on the outskirts of Soweto, the township that galvanized the resistance movement following the slaughter of a still-disputed number of students as they marched in protest of apartheid's dictates.

For millions of soccer fans, the most pressing questions of the 2010 World Cup revolve around the traditional powers. Can England's Wayne Rooney control his temper? Could Argentina's Lionel Messi truly be the best ever? Can any nation match the brilliance that is Brazil?

Closer to home, America's faithful hope their squad can reclaim the momentum it had in 2002 when the United States reached the World Cup's round of 16, only to backslide four years later, sent packing from Germany after the first round.

But among 49 million joyful South Africans, all hope rides on Bafana Bafana ("The Boys"), the country's national team that may well not have made the 32-team tournament had it not been guaranteed a berth as host. Nonetheless, under a stylish and stern Brazilian coach, the world's No. 83-ranked Bafana Bafana seem primed to shock in Friday's opener against Mexico, having played 12 consecutive tune-up matches without a loss.

But no figure will stand as tall in the hearts and minds of South Africans during this World Cup than former president Nelson Mandela, the Nobel laureate and beloved patriarch of the nation, who is expected to attend Friday's opening match, at 91, despite frailty and failing health. "Everyone feels like where he is, there is peace," said Noble Nkiwane, 32, a restaurant worker in Johannesburg. "Where he is, there is success."

In Soweto on Thursday, a steady stream of visitors filed through the cramped one-story brick house that served as Mandela's home before and, for a brief time, following the 27 years he spent in prison, convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life for his efforts to dismantle apartheid.

No. 8115 Vilakazi Street is a house like any other in the township, shoe-horned between its neighbors on a postage stamp-size plot of land. The roof is corrugated tin; the floor is stone. And the street is unremarkable but for the fact that it's the world's only street to be called home by two Nobel laureates (Archbishop Desmond Tutu being the other).

Mandela's house served as a hub of activity throughout the resistance movement. A coal stove heated the living room. And his children grew up to the sound of banging on the door at night, flashes of light trough the windows and urgent voices outside. Traces of two firebomb attacks linger in the charred bricks outside; other bricks bear the nicks of bullets.

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