After 1,021 days, 853 qualifying games... The World Cup finally begins

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Early this afternoon the plan is for an almost impossibly frail old man who in a few days will be 92, going on a millennium of pain and glory, to brave a cold wind beneath a vast steel blue sky and launch the 19th World Cup.

He will unleash footballers such as Argentina's Lionel Messi, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and England's Wayne Rooney towards what can only be the greatest ambition of their lives.

It is to make football prove that for a few weeks in Africa the game that conquered the world has not become so full of money and self-regard that it cannot still produce something worthy of the very best of its past and, maybe, who knows, something beyond.

If the old man applies his seal on such an undertaking it will not be according to the strictest medical advice but then Nelson Mandela has always made his own rules and destiny and if this is indeed a tournament that aspires to be one of the greatest and most colourful ever staged who better to point the world's most popular sport towards a new dimension?

There are two truths about the World Cup which starts today when South Africa's beloved national team, Bafana, Befana – they have regained that status after much ridicule with a surge of form in recent weeks – take on Mexico, another nation for whom football has in the past proved a compelling distraction from poverty and shocking crime levels.

One truth is that in many ways it might be happening a million miles, rather than scarcely one, from the Soweto township which yesterday was filled with banners and milling, expectant crowds. Celebrities are here in their droves and today they will be whisked by fleets of limousines from their five-star, buttoned-down security to the multi-coloured Soccer City stadium which is shaped after an African cooking vessel.

The cost of tickets is beyond the vast majority of those who will have to settle for a place in front of the giant screens that dot the city. The world's ruling body, Fifa, says that it has brought the great tournament to the African people but many have to be cynical and reply that what it has really done, rather as the Olympics does, is simply move its great corporate cash cow from one locality to another.

But, all right, that is one reality. Another is that Mandela's people will, from the great man down, inevitably touch profoundly this event that has grown so enormously down the years and now reaches every corner of the world.

Sam, a driver who has ferried me around this clamouring, potentially dangerous town before, took me down from the airport through the townships at dawn and pointed out the extraordinary sight of the poorest quarters of the city in a fever of expectation.

But expectation of what, you had to wonder. Would any of the old ladies garbed in the green of Bafana, Bafana, tending their makeshift spazashop cooking fires on the pavements begin to recognise Messi or Ronaldo if they stepped down in a whoosh of airbrakes and bought a little cooked meat or a fried egg? Almost certainly not but the kids selling the national flags at almost every traffic light would and between the young and the old there is, for a few days at least, an excitement so strong it is as tangible as the cooking smoke wafted by the wind.

Sam, who is 49 years old, said, "In all my life, I have never known the people to be so excited. They feel that for once they are at the centre of the world and, you know, some of them even think we might just win the World Cup."

An outrageous reach of faith, no doubt, but it was overwhelming this week when the South African team, whose results were an embarrassment earlier the year, toured the city, and the denizens of Sandton, who by and large are wealthy South Africans and tourists and the people from the townships who serve them, were stunned by an outpouring of support which filled the streets and blocked traffic for hours.

No one was more staggered – and for a little while outraged – than the team's Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, whose key players, captain Aaron Mokoena and midfielder Steven Pienaar, play for Portsmouth and Everton respectively and have become national heroes over the last few weeks.

Parreira knows all about national frenzy, having coached Brazil to World Cup victory in 1994, but he was dismayed that his players were exposed to such a mood of celebration a few days before their opening game.

"I didn't believe it was good for our preparations," he said yesterday. "Players need calm at such a time, should be concentrating their minds on what they have to do, but then I suppose it is understandable that the people should want to show their enthusiasm before such an important event. I have to tell the players that we have to put it all out of our minds now and just play the games as well as we can."

The South Africans have exceeded earlier expectations with some impressive form in warm-up matches, beating Colombia and Denmark and drawing with Bulgaria, but perhaps not entirely justifying President Jacob Zuma's rallying cry.

He told Parreira and his players: "No South African has any doubts and we will support you to the end. We are ready for the world and ready to surprise everyone. Keep in mind everyone is with you. They can't all speak to you but I can on their behalf.

"I have been saying Bafana, Bafana will surprise people and I think we are ready to go to war and conquer."

South Africans no doubt will settle for less and especially when such figures as Messi and Rooney, worshipped from afar as they explode on the township television screens, are for a little while breathing the same air and feeling the same cold wind sweeping the veld.

Many of Fifa president Sepp Blatter's claims about this World Cup, especially the more evangelical ones, have been treated with considerable scepticism. However, football's most accomplished politician – and money-maker – was on the safest ground last night when he declared, "Everyone can feel hope that this World Cup is very special, the first on African soil. We find ourselves in a position of indescribable anticipation."

That much, certainly, is true of Africa as it meets the dawn of the greatest sports tournament of all.

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