James Lawton: South Africa alive with Bafana fever
Today an almost impossibly frail old man, who in a few days will be 92 going on a millennium of pain and glory, will brave a cold wind beneath a vast steel blue sky and launch the 19th World Cup.
If it happens, this will not be according to the strictest medical advice, but then Nelson Mandela has always made his own rules and destiny and if this is indeed a tournament that aspires to be one of the greatest and most colourful ever staged who better to point the world's most popular sport towards a new dimension?
There are two truths about the World Cup which starts today when South Africa's beloved national team, Bafana, Bafana, take on Mexico, another nation for whom football has in the past proved a compelling distraction from poverty and shocking crime levels.
One truth is that it many ways it might be happening a million miles, rather than scarcely one, from the Soweto township which yesterday was filled with banners and milling, expectant crowds. Celebrities are here by the drove and today they will be whisked by fleets of limousines from their five-star, buttoned down security to the multi-coloured Soccer City stadium which is shaped after an African cooking vessel.
The cost of tickets is beyond the vast majority of those who will have to settle for a place in front of the giant screens which dot the city. The world's ruling body says that it has brought the great tournament to the African people, but many have to be cynical and reply that what they have really done, rather as the Olympics do, is simply move their great corporate cash cow from one locality to another.
That is one reality. Another is that Mandela's people will, from the great man down, inevitably touch profoundly this event that has grown so enormously down the years and now reaches every corner of the world.
Sam, a driver who has ferried me around this clamouring, potentially dangerous town before, took me down from the airport through the townships at dawn and pointed out the extraordinary sight of the poorest quarters of the city in a fever of expectation.
Expectation of what, you had to wonder. Would any of the old ladies garbed in the green of Bafana, Bafana, tending their makeshift ‘spazashop' cooking fires on the pavements begin to recognise Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo if they stepped down in a whoosh of airbrakes and bought a little cooked meat or a fried egg? Almost certainly not, but the kids selling the national flags at almost every traffic light certainly would and between the young and the old there is, for a few days at least, an excitement so strong it is as tangible as the cooking smoke wafted by the wind.
Sam, who is 49-years-old, said: “In all my life, I have never known the people to be so excited. They feel that for once they are at the centre of the world and you know, some of them even think we might just win the World Cup.”
An outrageous reach of faith, no doubt, but it was overwhelming this week when the South African team toured the city and the denizens of Sandton, who by and large are wealthy South Africans and tourists and the people from the townships who serve them, were stunned by a outpouring of support which filled the streets and blocked traffic for hours.
No-one was more staggered than the team's Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, whose key players, captain Aaron Mokoena and midfielder Steven Pienaar, play for Portsmouth and Everton respectively and have become national heroes over the last few weeks.
Parreira knows all about national frenzy, having coached Brazil to World Cup victory in 1994, but he was dismayed that his players were exposed to such a mood of celebration a few days before their opening game.
“I didn't believe it was good for our preparations,” he said. “Players need calm at such a time, should be concentrating their minds on what they have to do, but then I suppose it is understandable that the people should want to show their enthusiasm before such an important event.”
The South Africans have exceeded earlier expectations with some impressive form in warm-up matches, beating Columbia and Denmark and drawing with Bulgaria, but perhaps not entirely justifying President Jacob Zuma's rallying cry.
He told Parreira and his players, “No South African has any doubts and we will support you to the end. We are ready for the world and ready to surprise everyone. Keep in mind everyone is with you. They can't all speak to you but I can on their behalf.
“I have been saying Bafana, Bafana will surprise people and I think we are ready to go to war and conquer.”
Many of FIFA president Sepp Blatter's claims about this World Cup, especially the more evangelical ones, have been treated with considerable scepticism.
However, football's most accomplished politician — and money-maker — was on the safest ground last night when he declared: “Everyone can feel hope that this World Cup is very special, the first on African soil. We find ourselves in a position of indescribable anticipation.”
That much, certainly, is true of Africa as it meets the dawn of the greatest sports tournament of all.