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Opening ceremonies dazzle

Mandela absence only drawback

Associated Press / June 12, 2010

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Nelson Mandela would have loved it. The joy, the pulsating music and dazzling colors, the big party to celebrate the world’s embrace of South Africa — even the scrappy 1-1 draw.

Dashing the hopes of many, the anti-apartheid hero and former president couldn’t make it to the opening of the World Cup yesterday in Johannesburg. Nearly 92, Mandela is frail, and his family was sent into shock when his 13-year-old great-granddaughter was killed in car crash on the way home from a concert Thursday.

But Mandela sent a message, via South African President Jacob Zuma, that the revelers should enjoy themselves. They took it to heart.

From the start of the ceremony to the final whistle of the first match, four hours later, Soccer City was abuzz with vuvuzelas — the plastic horns favored by South African fans that collectively sound like the amplified interior of a beehive.

Most of the crowd of 84,000 wore the yellow jerseys of Bafana Bafana, the host country’s team, with a few pockets of green — fans of Mexico, South Africa’s foe in the opener.

Even the result did little did dampen the festive mood. Mexico is ranked much higher among soccer nations, after all.

It was a day that many South Africans welcomed with amazement. Only 20 years ago, their nation was still in the throes of apartheid — and the target of an international sports boycott because of those racial segregation policies. Yesterday, whites and blacks rooted side by side for the home team. And on the clogged highway leading to the stadium, little blond children in their families’ vans waved South African flags and grinned warmly at the black children cheering and dancing along the roadside.

Just before kickoff, Zuma, sporting a scarf in national colors, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter spoke briefly to the crowd from midfield. Blatter depicted this World Cup as a triumph for Africa, which had never before hosted the event despite its passion for the game. He added: “The spirit of Mandela is in Soccer City.’’

Several key players in South Africa’s political transformation were there, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who at one point was dancing in his seat to the music. US Vice President Joe Biden was also in attendance.

It was not an occasion for those who like it quiet, thanks to the vuvuzelas — although they were briefly drowned out by the overflight of military jets just before the opening ceremony.

Those who didn’t go to the stadium had ample options.

South African city officials set up 10 official fan parks in the nine host cities to cater to fans who couldn’t get match tickets.

In downtown Johannesburg, a viewing area was so packed that a crowd-control barrier was toppled at one point. It didn’t stop the party.

Elephants slow US
Forget getting past England. The US soccer team had to get past the elephants first. The US squad was delayed twice when elephants blocked the road, the second back-up coming as the squad was traveling to its training session at Royal Bafokeng Stadium. The elephant was munching on a tree as the Americans left the Bakubung Bush Lodge, and it moved to the side of the road after four minutes.

“Everybody had their cellphones out, pictures were being taken,’’ coach Bob Bradley said. “It was all part of the experience.’’

Earlier in the afternoon, a bus carrying 10 players on their way to a market at the entrance to the team hotel got stuck behind an elephant. Players had timed the trip to get back to the hotel in time for the start of the opener.

Signs outside the US hotel warn: “Elephants Come Close To Our Fence Keep A Distance Of 30 Meters And Please Be Quiet’’ and “Baboons Are Dangerous — Please Keep Clear Of Them And Do Not Feed Them.’’

“It was cool,’’ US captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “A big elephant, just eating on the path out of our hotel.’’

It wasn’t clear if the same elephant caused both delays.

Iniesta doubtful
Injured midfielder Andres Iniesta remains doubtful for Spain’s opening match after training alone during the team’s first practice in South Africa. Spain was the last of the 32 teams to arrive. Iniesta ran drills with one of the team’s physiotherapists at North West University, where the European champions are based for the tournament . . . Despite sitting out a training match against the Gauteng All Stars, Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi could return for Monday’s opener against Paraguay. Another key midfielder for Italy, Andrea Pirlo, could miss the group phase with a left calf injury.

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