When first considering a voyage to South Africa, the host country of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it was not without trepidation.

Crime, poverty and fear had an impact on what has always been a narrow appreciation of sport. South Africa, and Johannesburg in particular, present new waters to navigate. They also force an acceptance that most barriers can be broken down on the Earth’s fields of play.

At the spectacular Soccer City stadium in Soweto, once the scene of so much strife in a racially divided country, there is now a palpable feeling that those days may be extinct. They just might be replaced by the pride that the black majority will feel when 89,000 plus gather in the sparkling new monument to a beloved game.

When Mexico and South Africa open the World Cup in early June they will do so just down the street from the dilapidated metal shacks and the memories of apartheid. The scars of a wounded society remain. Most of the people here can’t afford a ticket — they can’t even dream of it.

Still, they are determined to be gracious and willing hosts.

“We have seen those stars, Ronaldo of Portugal, Rooney of England and Torres of Spain, but only playing on TV,” says Harold Moyo, a worker at the Soccer City stadium. “But this is special because it’s the only time we will see them playing live and on our home soil and we are very proud of it.”

At a Soweto primary school where most of the 420 students are orphans, the kids who battle back and forth with a ragged football shout the names of South African stars like Teko Modise and Steven Pienaar. But they also joyously identify international icons such as Lionel Messi of Argentina, Thierry Henry of France and Kaka, the brilliant, Brazilian midfielder.

Such is the universal recognition that the World Cup in Africa is a good thing, not just for sport, but also for human beings who are devoted to the “Beautiful Game.”

“These are our country’s most disadvantaged children,” says Makhotso Sambo, the school’s principal. “But in the World Cup and the players who come, they will see that maybe there is something better in their future if they work hard.”

In Soweto, it seems, there’s not a lot to fear. Instead hope springs eternal in what is for now, the world’s most important soccer city.

– Gemini Award winner and author Scott Russell is the Host of CBC Sports Weekend seen Saturday afternoons. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, he has covered a variety of professional and amateur sports including nine Olympic games and numerous world championships.

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