World cup excitement in South Africa

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Anchor Marco Werman speaks with journalist Stephen Grootes in Johannesburg about the atmosphere there one day before of the beginning of the soccer World Cup.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The World Cup party is starting in South Africa, for real. Thousands of people gathered outside a stadium in Soweto today. They were there for a concert kicking off the festivities on the eve of the World Cup's first match tomorrow. That game pits the host nation, South Africa, against Mexico. There are great expectations in South Africa for the tournament, and we're not just talking about what happens on the field. The country's post-apartheid elder statesman, Nelson Mandela, calls this one of the greatest events in Africa's history. The 91-year-old Mandela is expected to make an appearance on opening day tomorrow, but his grandson Nkosi says it will be a brief appearance.

NKOSI: The current discussion is that we afford him time to come in, whether it's 10 minutes or 15 minutes, to walk around the stadium and wave at the crowd. That's what we are looking at. But I think to have him sit there an entire 90 minutes of soccer would really impact on his state of health because it is winter after all. So we have to guard against that. And as South Africans, we wish him to live many more years to come.

WERMAN: Many South Africans see the World Cup as a pivotal moment for their country. Stephen Grootes is a reporter with the Eyewitness News Team at Johannesburg's Talk Radio 702.

STEPHEN GROOTES: It's incredible. I've never, ever seen my country quite like this. Everywhere you go, every single car has flags, not just South African flags, but flags of all the nations playing. They've got them on their bonnets, they've got them coming out of their windows, they've got them on their wing mirrors. Every single building, a lot of houses have flags on them as well, which is quite rare to see in South Africa. And everyone is talking only about this. You know we have this thing called football Friday where you're allowed to wear the jersey of our national team they're called the Befana Befana, which means the boys. And everyone has been wearing their shirt. It seems now like for the last month you just don't see anyone who is not wearing yellow and gold. It's incredible.

WERMAN: And this is an event that has been talked about and planned for a long time.

GROOTES: It has. There's a bit of history here. We were promised it virtually, to host it four years ago and then it mysteriously went to Germany. Now it's our turn and I think we're absolutely, it's interesting to watch government, to look at all the officials, to look at people in the street. Everyone seems absolutely determined to do it right. This is our chance to shine in the world, but also I think there's a strong sense that we're representing Africa here in a way that most other people from Brazil, don't necessarily feel South American. That South Africans absolutely feel we're doing this for Africa. It's really, really important to get it right and I think that sense is coming through really very strongly now.

WERMAN: And for cynics who see the World Cup as an overhyped 90 minute event where 22 men chase a ball, what do you think prompted Mr. Mandela to call this one of the greatest events in Africa's history?

GROOTES: I think it's the fact that the whole world, just about, is coming to play on our field. They're coming to play with us; they're coming to party with us as well. There's going to be quite a few awfully big parties. I think that's one of the reasons. Football is such a strong cultural force around the world. It's the one sport, one sort of truly global sport in a way and I think it's the bringing together of the world on our playing field, literally. And I think it's about that. I think it's about the fact that we're showing the world that we're a part of the world and that everyone is welcome here. I think that's probably where Nelson Mandela was headed, that this is something that affects so many people in so many nations. It's something that brings the world together and we're playing a huge role in that.

WERMAN: So how does that look today in Johannesburg Stephen? Are the streets crowded with just arrived fans from around the world?

GROOTES: Absolutely. My office is a block away from one of the main ticketing centers and there are so many people who are from so many parts of the world, who've been camped there for the last week. We've got some foreign newspapers being printed here for the fans who have come from various countries so they can read them here. There's just such an amazing vibe at the moment. Everywhere you go, everyone is talking about one thing. And I think that really tells you how incredible this event hopefully is going to be. Everyone is talking about the big concert that's happening tonight. We've got Shakira, we've got Alicia Keys, big name acts we don't normally see in South Africa; they're playing tonight. And then we've got the big opening ceremony tomorrow. We're hoping Nelson Mandela will be there. And then we've got the game which starts in the afternoon and if we beat Mexico we really will be on a strong footing for the rest of the tournament.

WERMAN: Now historically in South Africa, soccer was a game that attracted more black fans than white ones. Whites tended to favor rugby. But I'm wondering if this World Cup is helping to realize the potential of the rainbow nation.

GROOTES: Yeah very much so. You know we had this amazing event yesterday. They were expecting thirty to forty thousand people to come and cheer Befana Befana through the streets of Santin. Santin is our square mile of Manhattan if you like. It's a major big business center. It's a white dominated area in a way. And we've never seen so many people come out to support the soccer team. There must have been about 130,000 people there and most of them were white. This is something we haven't seen before. We haven't seen a football team have so much white support. And it was really an incredible experience being a part of that crowd yesterday and just seeing how so many people were so happy to see the football team and also to see the players' faces. They just didn't realize they were uniting the nation in this kind of way. It's really been an incredible month here on that score, and the game hasn't even started yet. We haven't started the tournament properly yet.

WERMAN: Right. Is anybody still expressing worries about the logistics of it all, about whether South Africa is prepared to host this huge event? Or today is it more like ready or not here we come?

GROOTES: It's kind of we're ready and here it comes, I think is the sort of vibe. People aren't worried about that too much. There was a time when there were a few concerns. I think transport there might be one or two problems getting people to and from the games, but that's one of those things. They're big events. We're expecting over 90,000 people at tomorrow's opening game. No place in the world do you get people in and out in those numbers particularly quickly. Also, this has been the main focus for so long; we've been looking forward to this. It's been the big news story here for years it seems. This has been the big thing. And so I think people have put a lot of time and effort into it and they realize how important it is to get this right because if we do get this right, and I really think we will, it's going to change South Africa's image as a nation, hopefully forever.

WERMAN: Stephen Grootes with Talk Radio 702 in Johannesburg thanks and good luck to your home team, Befana Befana.

GROOTES: Thank you so much, we can't wait for kick off.