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As World Cup kicks off, spotlight shines on S. Africa's troubled past, hopeful future

The 32-team tournament showcases intense soccer action and attracts the most passionate fans in the world.

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; 12:35 PM

JOHANNESBURG -- The 2010 World Cup got underway Friday amid elaborate pageantry, the blare of ubiquitous plastic horns known as vuvuzelas and profound grief over the tragic death of Nelson Mandela's 13-year-old great-granddaughter.

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As the din of horn-blowing nearly drowned out the opening ceremony's music, hundreds of African dancers clad in yellow, red and green entertained a huge throng gathered for the kickoff of the month-long, 32-nation soccer tournament, which is being held in Africa for the first time.

But the jubilation was moderated somewhat by the absence of Mandela, the venerated former anti-apartheid leader and president who canceled his planned attendance -- an increasingly rare public appearance for the frail Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- following the death of his great-grandchild.

Zenani Mandela was killed Thursday night when the car she was riding in was involved in a one-car accident after a pre-tournament concert at Soweto's Orlando Stadium.

As a result, the Nelson Mandela Foundation announced that Mandela, 91, South Africa's first democratically elected president and the man most responsible for the choosing of South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup, would not attend Friday's opening ceremony or the tournament's first match.

The match, which began shortly after 4 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT) at the 94,700-seat Soccer City Stadium, pitted South Africa's beloved national team, known as Bafana Bafana, or "the Boys," against Mexico. South Africa scored first in the second half, but Mexico equalized 24 minutes later, and the match ended in a 1-1 draw.

To celebrate the first global sporting event to be contested on the African continent, the South African hosts staged a dazzling pageant on the soccer pitch that reflected the nation's arts, culture, song and dance, as well as multiple jet flyovers, fireworks and a giant dung beetle kicking a giant inflated soccer ball toward a goal.

Among the dignitaries in attendance were Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 78, the anti-apartheid activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, and former South African president F.W. de Klerk, 74, who served as the last head of state of the apartheid era and was awarded the peace prize with Mandela in 1993 for his role in ending the system of racial segregation. Tutu could be seen dancing in the stands after South Africa scored its goal.

Also on hand were Vice President Biden, representing the United States at the opening ceremony, and the presidents of South Africa and Mexico: Jacob Zuma and Felipe Calderón.

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.


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