South Africa unites as World Cup gets underway

From Table Mountain to Soweto, the pulsating chants of traditional songs and the blasting of plastic horns sounded the start of the first World Cup to be held on African soil.

Several people were hurt in a crush at the start of a live broadcast of the tournament's opening game at a viewing site for fans in Johannesburg, witnesses said, but the mood at dozens of fan parks across the vast country was joyful.

"It has united the nation ... the rainbow nation has gathered together," said 36-year-old teacher Disebo as she joined in the chorus in the usually quiet city of Bloemfontein, which lies in the country's Afrikaner heartland.

As tens of thousands of fans with tickets descended on the showpiece Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg for the opening match, many more were getting into the party mood in their home cities.

Massive television screens have been set up to make sure ordinary South Africans can watch Bafana Bafana (The Boys) take on Mexico in the opening game of the football festival.

"There's no place to be in the world except South Africa. The vibe is in Johannesburg," said Eddie van Rensburg, 28, at a fan park in the Melrose Arch office development just outside the city.

At another site in a downtown square, three people were hurt as fans broke through a security fence to catch a glimpse of the 4 p.m. (1400 GMT) kick off, Reuters witnesses said.

In Johannesburg alone, about a dozen fan parks and viewing sites have been set up, able to cater for some 100,000 supporters.

South Africans hope the World Cup marks a new chapter for a country troubled by crime, AIDS and racial division 16 years after the end of apartheid, and patriotic spirits were running high.

"It's incredible that 20 years ago South Africa wasn't even allowed to compete in international sport and now the whole world is focused on us," said Claire Davidson, a 26-year-old conference organiser in Cape Town.

The 25,000 capacity site has been set up just outside the historic City Hall where Nelson Mandela delivered his first speech as a free man after his release from prison and with a stunning backdrop of Table Mountain and palm trees.

Stewards were letting supporters in gradually to avert a repeat of the crush that injured six people at the site at a concert on Thursday.

Street vendors were making the most of the crowds, doing a brisk trade in barbecued chicken and sausages.

"The World Cup is making us some cash," said Thulani Mazula, 18, wearing an apron as she grilled sausages in the Motherwell township just northeast of Port Elizabeth. "People with full stomachs make better Bafana Bafana supporters."

Barefoot children kicked soccer balls about nearby, some wearing wigs and home-made team jerseys.

As kick off neared, fans queued outside the fan parks in their thousands.

"I couldn't sleep last night because of the excitement and the noise," said Tiisetso Mohapi, a 25-year-old businessman at a fan park set up in the central square of Bloemfontein.

At a nearby bar, black and white fans mingled in a joyous mood.

"It's the nation coming together, black and white," said Lluwellin-lee Peyper, 26. "Everyone in the world is watching us and we want to show them what South Africa is really like."