Ceremony sparkles despite Mandela absence

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The Independent Online

The World Cup kicked off today with a breathtaking visual spectacular at the opening ceremony in South Africa.

Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium rang out to the sound of music and cheering as the 19th edition of the Fifa tournament roared into life.

The one notable absentee was the country's former president Nelson Mandela, who pulled out following the death of his 13-year-old great-granddaughter Zenani in a car crash.

Mr Mandela's former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was taken to hospital to be treated for shock on hearing the news of the car crash.

But his absence did not stop the 1,581 artists enthralling the crowd - at least half of whom missed out on the colourful proceedings by arriving late at the 85,000-capacity venue.

After an aerial display by the South African air force, a group of drummers and dancers performed a Welcome to Africa song that included an introduction to all 10 of the tournament's venues.

The next sequence saw a gigantic beetle show off its football skills with the Jabulani - the official football of the finals - before large pieces of cloth were used to show a map of the continent and then the world.

A smoking calabash, depicting the stadium design, represented another side of Africa, and the colour and splendour drew even more roars from the slowly filling stadium.

Musicians and artists from the other African finalist countries - Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria - also had their chance to perform in a joint sequence.

Multiple Grammy Award-winning R&B star R Kelly then sang the ceremony's showpiece song, Sign Of A Victory, with South Africa's Soweto Spiritual Singers.

The opening concluded with a display of flags from the 176 competing member associations that failed to qualify, surrounding those that did, with voices of children sounding out the names of all the 32 qualifiers and then uniting to form a human version of the official tournament logo.

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Mexican president Felipe Calderon, Prince Albert of Monaco and United States vice-president Joe Biden were all expected to attend, while Archbishop Desmond Tutu and president Jacob Zuma were among those spotted.

Locals believe their team, known as Bafana Bafana, can lift the trophy.

Video: Concert kicks off World Cup

The team have never progressed beyond the group stage but they will be cheered on by a nation in the grip of football fever.

Many believe the vuvuzela, the plastic trumpets which make a noise like a herd of charging elephants, will be their secret weapon.

Thousands of travelling England supporters have made their way to South Africa, although many have stayed away because of the high cost of flights and accommodation and fears over safety.

Back home, hundreds of people flocked to Trafalgar Square in London for a day-long event to celebrate the start of the tournament.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson hosted the party, where he was to be joined by South African High Commissioner Dr Zola Skweyiya.

A performance by award-winning South African lyric soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, mass flag-waving and a selection of South African food were also on the bill.

Mr Johnson said: "Throughout the world, anticipation and excitement are reaching fever pitch as the master exponents of the beautiful game come together in thrilling competition.

"So, vuvuzelas at the ready - here's to South Africa and a glorious World Cup."

Nearly four million fans will flock to the pub to watch the match, according to a ComRes poll commissioned by the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA).

The poll predicted a £35 million sales boost from the game with an extra nine million pints of beer sold.

After a highly successful qualifying campaign under manager Fabio Capello there are high hopes the England team could end 44 years of hurt and lift the trophy for the first time since 1966.

But warm-up matches against Mexico and Japan proved less than inspiring and captain Rio Ferdinand will sit out the tournament after sustaining an injury in his first training session in South Africa.