SOUTH AFRICAN ECSTASY AS WORLD CUP KICKS OFF
Johannesburg's streets were filled with the unrelenting chorus of the vuvuzela and car horns announcing the beginning of a long night of celebrations as South Africa – known by all football fans here as “Bafana Bafana” (“the boys”) – drew 1-1 with Mexico at the opening match of Africa's first World Cup.
“I am really proud of Bafana Bafana. Yes, I was hoping for a win but they played really well and have done the country proud,” said Isaac Maphalle, 21, after the final whistle.
The past week has been particularly impressive here – as though the reality of what it means to hold an event of this magnitude has finally sunk in. The entire country is drunk on World Cup fever.
Words can scarcely describe the electricity in this country at the moment.
United in football
The energy has even spread to South Africa's poorest areas. Diepsloot is located near the affluent suburb of Fourways on the outskirts of the city.
“The game was fantastic. A draw is okay, we're happy Bafana Bafana didn't lose,” said local resident Lefa Pienaar.
Just two years ago, there was a violent outbreak of xenophobia here, leaving many foreign nationals without homes and several dead – but today all of that seems forgotten.
Though the streets are lined with shacks and poverty remains evident, today it was all about the game.
Local residents, other South Africans and foreign nationals danced side-by-side in a local park where some 3,000 people had gathered to watch the match between South Africa and Mexico.
“The issue of xenophobia is no longer bad – football has unified the community,” said community leader David Maseko.
The park was a sea of colour as thousands of fans – many of them wearing the Bafana Bafana colours, green and gold – watched the game on a giant screen.
Colourful vuvuzelas, blankets made in the colours of the national flag and multi-coloured wigs added to the scene.
A heavy police presence kept an eye on the afternoon's proceedings, with officers carefully searching all those who walked into the park.
“Yes there are problems here like poverty and no jobs but we are putting them aside for Bafana Bafana, we are focusing on football. It is all about them and the World Cup,” says 18-year old Kgofelo Mahlatse, who is struggling to get into university because of a lack of money.
Large crowds cheered as the referee's whistle announced the start of the much-awaited match being held at Soccer City stadium on the other side of Johannesburg.
“It is here,” some screamed as the game started.
But a few minutes into the game, the noise levels dropped as thousands of eyes were glued on the screen – nervousness etched on many of their faces – a theme that dominated the first half.
A few minutes after the start of the second half, Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first goal of the match, causing an eruption of screams – many jumping up and down and throwing themselves on the floor in excitement.
The players also celebrated in style
Although Mexico went on to equalise, the euphoria was still evident at the end of the game.
South Africa has a lot of challenges. It has one of the highest crime rates in the world, poverty still haunts many as the gap between the rich and the poor widens – but the country is nowhere near breaking point.
Naysayers proved wrong
For now South Africa seems oblivious to its challenges, determined to savour the moment.
“We have waited for this moment for years. Win or lose, this World Cup is ours – we are behind Bafana all the way,” said Monica Masisi, 48.
What made South Africa special was its ability to move past the negative and focus on what lay ahead, she said.
“Today we are able to celebrate our freedom as South Africans by hosting the world in our own country.”
Many have speculated about the World Cup over the years, worried about the lack of infrastructure in Africa to host such an event.
Naysayers predicted that none of the 10 stadia would be ready on time and that the country would not be able to accommodate the thousands who would be descending on its shores.
But over the past few years South Africa has surprised even itself by delivering world class stadia, hundreds of hotels and a multi-billion dollar railway system.
These will remain in the country long after the final whistle is blown.
Many South Africans believe one man should be thanked for bringing the World Cup to Africa – Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela missed the match but was there in spirit
“This is a first for Africa and maybe the last. We owe Mandela a lot,” says schoolgirl Lebohang Sekhu.
Mr Mandela was unable to attend the opening match as many had hoped due to the loss of his great-granddaughter Zenani, 13, who was killed in a car crash while returning from a World Cup concert in the early hours of Friday morning, but many here said they still felt the “Madiba magic”.
“Mandela taught us unity – that's why we are here today as Africans. We are celebrating the match but our prayers are with him during this time,” said Ms Mahlatse.
When Mr Mandela was released from prison in 1990, some believed there would be a civil war in South Africa but instead there was change of governance as democracy was ushered in.
The first fruits of South Africa's attempts at unity was the 1995 rugby World Cup, where black and white South Africans stood side by side cheering on the Springboks.
2010 has brought back many of those good old feelings.
Until now, football was seen as a black man's sport and rugby as a white man's sport, but the unity this football event has brought has blurred the lines between black and white and instilled a sense of national pride.
Whatever the outcome, Africa will be remembered as the continent where blacks and whites danced, cheered and cried along side each other – grateful to have been part of South Africa's golden moment.