Leading article: The unification game kicks off

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The World Cup – the biggest sporting spectacle on the planet – kicks off today in South Africa. It will do so to the low drone of tens of thousands of vuvuzelas, the metre-long plastic trumpets beloved of South African football fans.

And there will be some who hear a discordant note amid the celebrations. The competition might be the pinnacle of the beautiful game, but one would be hard-pressed to describe Fifa, the World Cup's organiser, as a beautiful organisation. The fears expressed (in private) last month by the former head of the English Football Association, Lord Triesman, about corruption in the governing body ended up costing him his job. But the smell of corruption has been hanging over Fifa for years. And world football's governing body has made precious little effort to disperse it.

The host nation has its troubles too. The progress of the rainbow nation since the end of apartheid in 1994 has been disappointing. Much of South Africa's black population still lives in dire poverty. There are appalling levels of inequality and violent crime.

And the country's political system often seems lost when faced with such vast social and economic problems. The president, Jacob Zuma, is no Nelson Mandela. And if the likes of the demagogic African National Congress youth leader, Julius Malema, have their way in future, South Africa could easily follow Zimbabwe down the road to economic suicide.

Mr Zuma has invited the 52 heads of all of Africa's nations to the opening game of the competition today in Johannesburg. But this does not feel like the moment of African emergence on the world stage that many hoped for when South Africa was announced as the host in 2004. The reality is that South Africa is probably only one of a handful of nations on the continent with the resources to stage the tournament.

Yet it would be wrong to ignore what South Africa has achieved in its preparations for this competition. The government has managed to build the new stadiums, the airports and the rail links (which visitors from around the world will admire over the next month) on time. Major sporting events are often criticised for being a waste of scarce resources. But this World Cup has provided an excuse for a major national building project in a country which desperately needed both the infrastructure and the jobs.

And what this competition means to South Africans should not be underestimated. President Zuma described 2010 as "the most important year in our country since 1994". That might sound like the typical hyperbole of a politician, but many of Mr Zuma's compatriots, especially black South Africans, would agree with him.

Rugby has traditionally been the game of the Afrikaner community. This is why it was such a healing moment for the country when, in 1995, the new president, Nelson Mandela, handed the Rugby World Cup trophy to the victorious white South African captain, Francois Pienaar. But football is the game of the black townships. If this World Cup can capture just a fraction of the racially unifying spirit of its rugby equivalent 15 years ago, it will surely be worth all the expenditure.

And football, for all the many deficiencies of its international powerbrokers, is still a unique international sporting bridge. From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to the pubs of England, to the slums of Lagos, to the bars of Tokyo, football – and this competition – will be the focus of a worldwide conversation during the next four weeks. As the global village expands, so does the power of the World Cup. As English fans know all too well, football does not always live up to its potential. But it always provides hope. And that is reason enough to blow a vuvuzela today.

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