The first football World Cup ever held in Africa has opened in a dazzling burst of joy, colour, noise – and a hint of sadness.
Before a jubilant, horn-blowing crowd at Soccer City, the spectacular stadium between Johannesburg and Soweto, hundreds of African dancers in vivid greens, reds and yellows paraded onto the field for the opening ceremony of the month-long tournament.
Most of the fans were in the yellow jerseys of Bafana Bafana, the host country's team, who drew 1-1 with Mexico in the tournament’s opening match.
The elation was tempered by news that Nelson Mandela, the revered anti-apartheid leader and former president, would not attend the ceremony. The frail 91-year-old decided not to come after his 13-year-old great-granddaughter was killed in a car crash on the way home from Thursday night’s World Cup concert.
Several other icons of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa were on hand, including Mandela’s former wife, Winnie, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who at one point was dancing in his seat to the music.
Former South Africa President FW De Klerk, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for negotiating an end to white-minority rule, also was present, organisers said.
Other VIPS included the presidents of South Africa and Mexico – Jacob Zuma and Felipe Calderon – and US Vice President Joe Biden. Swiss President Doris Leuthard visited the Swiss team at their training ground and was expected to attend the South Africa-Mexico match.
It was not an occasion for those who dislike noise. Many of the fans came equipped with vuvuzelas, the plastic horns which emit a loud and distinctive blare. Incredibly, the din from the horns was briefly drowned out by the fly-over of military jets just before the ceremony started.
The public address announcer then pleaded with the crowd to ease up on the horns so the global television audience could hear the music. The plea met with limited success.
An all-star cast of musicians, including South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and American singer R. Kelley, performed. Cast members brought out large placards with the flags of the 32 nations competing in the tournament, holding them high as a final burst of fireworks ended the show.
Soccer City, which seats more than 90,000, wasn't yet full at the start of the ceremony. Thousands of fans were stuck in traffic jams on roads leading to the stadium, regaled along the way by groups of dancing, chanting young people in Bafana shirts and by vendors selling the multicoloured South African flag.
Unlike many opening matches, which are often jittery affairs, Friday’s match was exciting end-to-end football.
Mexico dominated the first half but failed to convert their dominance into goals, and it fell to Siphiwe Tshabalala to open the scoring for the hosts in the 54th minute, picking up a beautiful through pass and slotting the ball past a chanceless keeper.
Mexico had to wait until the 79th minute for Rafael Marquez to equalise. South Africa’s Mphela then hit the post in the 89th minute.
Later on Friday France, the losing finalists in Germany four years ago, drew 0-0 against two-time champion Uruguay in the other Group A match in Cape Town.
Switzerland have their first match, against European champions Spain, on June 16. It is still not certain whether captain Alexander Frei will be fit for the match after injuring his ankle.
Switzerland are 250-1 to lift the trophy on July 11 – some way behind favourites Spain (4-1) and Brazil (4.5-1) but some way ahead of stragglers North Korea and New Zealand, both available at around 2,000-1.
swissinfo.ch and agencies
Swiss match dates
June 16: Spain
June 21: Chile
June 25: Honduras