Why it's standing room only for World Cup VIPs

So many leaders have been invited to Friday's opening game that seats have run out
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The Independent Online

The 10 stadiums are ready, the airports upgraded and even the high-speed Gautrain rail link passed a late fitness test this week. In fact, the only thing that isn't finished ahead of tomorrow's World Cup kick-off is the VIP seating plan for the opening ceremony at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium. And it could be the task that tests relations between the South African government and world football's governing body, Fifa, to destruction.

It was Samuel Johnson who famously remarked that "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels" and there will be plenty of them in attendance wrapping themselves in their respective flags.

Without too much thought, South Africa's Jacob Zuma invited all 52 of his fellow African heads of state. The invitation apparently stands to Sudan's Omar al-Bashir with one important caveat: he will be arrested if he accepts. Mr Zuma was forced to clarify in parliament recently that South Africa would act on the warrant issued for the Sudanese leader by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.

Soccer City, the hi-tech calabash of a stadium on the outskirts of Soweto township, can hold more than 90,000 people but the "double-vees" or VVIPs have an enclosure that holds only 120 people in extraordinary comfort.

The good news for organisers is that Nelson Mandela will be one of them, albeit briefly. After contradictory statements from the government, Fifa and the family last week, it seems the universally popular architect of the Rainbow Nation will now make an appearance – then head home before it gets too cold. His grandson Mandla relented on his earlier insistence that his grandfather couldn't cope with attending some part of the opening ceremony, which is followed by the host's game against Mexico.

The appearance by Madiba, as Mr Mandela is known at home, is likely to mean a wave to the crowd ahead of kick-off and then a quiet exit after the opening whistle. The frail 91-year-old will then watch the rest of the game on television at home, we are assured.

So that's one seat filled. Another two will be taken by the men who came after him – Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. It seems unlikely that they will be sitting together after a titanic six-year power struggle saw Mr Zuma hound Mr Mbeki out of office. No one should be surprised if Mr Zuma apes the Mandela trademark and turns up in the team colours.

The current South African President will be grateful that the impending football fiesta has distracted from a potentially damaging scandal over one of his wives that he has denied. Ma Ntuli is reported to have had an affair with a presidential bodyguard – who committed suicide when news of the liaison broke. She is believed to be pregnant.

But she will be there along with her two fellow wives, who it is hoped won't be jostling for the seat nearest Zuma as they did at one recent public function. Mr Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, may choose to sit this one out rather than run into Winnie Madikizela.

Meanwhile, the stiffer, more formal Mr Mbeki might choose to have a final effort at his "quiet diplomacy" with the Zimbabwe delegation, which is expected to include Robert Mugabe and his Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Another possible guest whose entourage may be camped in Johannesburg is Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan leader doesn't have a team to cheer on but would be loath to miss the chance to remind the world that he regards himself as the paramount African leader at the continent's first World Cup.

Fifa's own de facto head of state, Sepp Blatter, will, as usual, be sitting as far as possible from his predecessor Joao Havelange – the man about whom it was recently observed that while a teenage Brazilian changed the way football was "played", it was the now-geriatric Havelange who had changed the way it was "paid".

Top prize for political football has been taken by the less flamboyant Felipe Calderon. The President of Mexico was considering staying at home to deal with multiple crises there until opinion polls told him that the majority of his countrymen would be there in a flash if they were him. Democratically, he decided to come after all.

Not so Barack Obama, whose voters would be less understanding. Instead, Vice-President Joe Biden will fly the flag before heading to Rustenburg to see the US take on England on Saturday. That match-up has worried terrorism experts sufficiently that it is getting more of the $174m (£119m) World Cup security budget than any other game.

But this will be the safest finals ever, according to a radio commercial by Fifa and the South African police (Saps). A voice reels off a list of helicopters bought, assault rifles loaded, water cannons primed and 40,000 specially deployed police, then without missing a beat concludes: Fifa and Saps "showcasing the humanity of Africa".

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