JOHANNESBURG - Nelson Mandela probably 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 soccer’s World Cup on Friday. Nearly 92, Mandela is frail, and his family was sent into shock when his 13-year-old great-granddaughter was killed in a car crash on the way home from Thursday night’s gala pre-tournament concert.
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 stadium was abuzz with vuvuzelas – the plastic horns favored by South African fans that collectively sound like the amplified interior of a beehive.
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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 to dampen the festive mood. Mexico is ranked much higher among soccer nations, after all.
And for one stretch, the home fans were in utter delirium. The level of bedlam and euphoria somehow ratcheted to a higher level when Siphiwe Tshabalala gave South Africa a 1-0 lead with a stylish goal in the 55th minute. Mexico’s tying goal, 24 minutes later, subdued the noise only briefly.
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.
On Friday, whites and blacks rooted side by side for the home team. And on the clogged high- way 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.”
The crowd then rose for the Mexican and South African national anthems – the latter a fusion of the main hymn of the anti-apartheid movement and the anthem of the former white-minority government.
Then it was game time and the horns sounded louder than ever.
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. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden also was among the VIPs.