More than a game

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World Cup has the potential to unite South Africa

From the stunning scenery unfolding beneath you as the cable-car slides up the jagged outline of Cape Town's justly-fabled Table Mountain to the estimated $90 million US spent on additional security measures.

From ongoing criticism over vast pots of money being showered on stadiums for a month-long event rather than pressing issues such as widespread poverty and AIDS to the pride of a country finding itself framed in the world spotlight for all the right reasons.

A boy plays soccer on a dusty pitch next to the New Zealand All Whites team training venue at Sinaba Stadium, Daveyton, Johannesburg, South Africa. The 2010 World Cup opens today. - Photo by The Associated Press

From the stunning scenery unfolding beneath you as the cable-car slides up the jagged outline of Cape Town's justly-fabled Table Mountain to the estimated $90 million US spent on additional security measures.

From ongoing criticism over vast pots of money being showered on stadiums for a month-long event rather than pressing issues such as widespread poverty and AIDS to the pride of a country finding itself framed in the world spotlight for all the right reasons.

From the reminders of the anti-apartheid movement that caught fire in Soweto to whale-watching and surfing at Marina Beach just south of picture-postcard-pretty Durban; from the shantytowns of Johannesburg to the neon-tinged Vegas-style casino opulence of Sun City.

It's all going to be a part of what promises to be the most exotic World Cup on record.

Since May 15, 2004 and the announcement that Archbishop Desmond Tutu's so-called Rainbow Nation had outpolled Morocco 14 votes to 10 to win the right to host the planet's most watched, discussed and anticipated sporting event, the skeptics have been vocal in their concerns. Too audacious. Too offbeat. And too dangerous. Far, far too dangerous.

The 2010 tournament, then, is FIFA's great leap of faith - a World Cup staged in Africa for the first time.

Never heard of Bobotie? You will. That's the national dish, a spicy minced meat baked with egg custard.

Think Vuvuzela is some sort of rashy skin condition? Wrong. It's a metre-long plastic horn African fans toot to distraction.

By the time the final is staged on July 11 at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium, given a facelift worthy of Joan Rivers (costing $400 million), designed to evoke a speckled piece of African pottery, you'll be familiar with Bloemfontein, Bafana Bafana and the 2001 tragedy at Ellis Park.

Exposure and goodwill come at a cost, however. Official figures put the total price tag for this World Cup coming in around $4.5 billion Cdn.

Johannesburg-born Everton FC midfielder Steven Pienaar, South Africa's skipper, told News of the World that his nation hopes "to invoke the spirit of (Nelson) Mandela" with this event, shed old stereotypes of South Africa, rip down barriers.

"The whole country will come together," promised Pienaar. "There is still a lot of racial tension but sport builds the spirit and unites people. The people in South Africa are going wild because we've been waiting so long for the tournament and now it's getting so close."

From a competition standpoint, the extreme differences in culture and climate from more traditional-venue World Cups - this is, in effect, winter in South Africa, with coolish temperature and rain very much in the forecast - could produce something other than a Round-Up-the-Usual-Suspects tournament, in the same manner of eight years ago when co-hosted by Japan and Korea.

So while Euro champions Spain and FIFA No. 1-ranked Brazil arrive as firm co-favourites, chased by a horde of the European and South American elite - England, reigning titleholders Italy, Portugal, Argentina, et al - the African nations believe they can have their say, too.

The furthest an African nation has travelled at a World Cup was the quarter-finals; Cameroon at Italia 1990 in Italy and Senegal eight years ago at Korea/Japan.

That distinction is in jeopardy now.

"The Africans should be taken seriously when they talk about winning the World Cup," Eto'o told France Football magazine. "When I see our team, I don't understand why we cannot aspire to winning in South Africa.

"Our players are not less than the players of Brazil, Argentina, Spain or France. We should not feel inferior."

The safety issue continues to be front and centre. More than 18,500 murders are committed in South Africa yearly, or more than 50 a day. Police have recruited and trained an additional 44,000 officers to try to make visitors feel safe, and bought vehicles, water cannons, helicopters and other equipment to aid in their quest. The precautionary build-up in that area is unprecedented.

What organizers are banking on being remembered, those positives Pienaar spoke of, are the natural beauty, the diversity, of the land. And the football. Always the football.

Lionel Messi bursting past defenders with that Usain Bolt-like first stride. A typically lethal Cristiano Ronaldo freekick from 25 or so yards away. The probing runs of Kaka, the predatory wiles of Rooney. Diego Maradona's touchline histrionics. Spanish elan. Italian defiance. Dutch flair.

Just sit back, instructs Steven Pienaar, and savour the show. There's nothing to compare. And it happens only once every four years.

"People can say what they like, the World Cup is coming because we can stage the competition as well as anyone.

"I'd say to the people who are worried: You don't have to come if you don't want to but it will still be a great tournament without you."

Organizations: FIFA, News of the World, France Football magazine

Geographic location: South Africa, Johannesburg, Cape Town Table Mountain Soweto Marina Beach Durban Vegas Sun City Africa Japan Korea Spain Soccer Brazil Italy Argentina Bloemfontein Ellis Park England Portugal Cameroon Senegal

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