PRETORIA, South Africa – President Jacob Zuma on Sunday declared South Africa ready for the start of the World Cup and praised the tournament for bringing cohesion to his once divided nation.
Five days from the kickoff, Zuma said the nation has not witnessed such enthusiasm and excitement since former president Nelson Mandela was released from an apartheid-era prison in 1990.
Zuma spoke to reporters at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria with FIFA president Sepp Blatter at his side.
Zuma said South African flags, festooning office towers, homes, stores and cars across the country, have become the most popular item for locals, and applauded the explosion of national pride, saying it was a priceless benefit of the tournament.
Zuma also criticized those who doubted the nation’s ability to host the first World Cup on the African continent.
South Africa was chosen in 2004 to host to this year’s tournament from June 11 to July 11.
“We knew from that moment that South Africa would never be the same. It is clear that millions of our people have waited for years and look upon this tournament with hope, pride and a sense of belonging,” he said.
Blatter said he met with Mandela last week and the frail 91-year-old icon expressed his wish to be present at the opening and closing ceremonies.
“Anyway, his spirit will be present,” Blatter said.
Zuma said sport has united all South Africans. In the run-up to the soccer tournament, a top rugby final was played in the Johannesburg area of Soweto for the first time — to a rapturous welcome in the township.
“We have seen things we have never seen before. Flags everywhere emphasize the cohesion we have been left with,” he said.
He said after the final whistle of the World Cup on July 11, South Africa would benefit from improved infrastructure and facilities as well an internationally-backed continent-wide project known as the 1Goal Education Campaign. The campaign aims to put 72 million African children into school for the first time.
“It will be one of the most lasting legacies of the 2010 World Cup,” he said.
Another campaign known as “Football for Hope” plans to set up 20 combined soccer, education and public health centres across the continent.
Blatter said Africa had often been sidelined in the past.
“Bringing the World Cup to South Africa is to trust South Africa, to trust Africa and to say: You are strong and you can do it,” he said.
Zuma said the six African teams in the tournament, including South Africa, were determined the gold World Cup trophy would stay in Africa this time around.
Despite the optimistic outlook Sunday, there was trouble at a World Cup warmup match. Thousands of football fans stampeded outside the Makhulong Stadium in a Johannesburg suburb Sunday before a World Cup warmup match between Nigeria and North Korea, leaving at least 15 people injured.
Several fans could be seen falling under the rush of people, many wearing Nigeria jerseys.
World Cup security was not in place at the match in Tembisa because it was a friendly, but one policeman blamed FIFA for the trouble. Another policeman said that because this was a friendly, the Nigerian team, designated the host, was responsible for security. Once trouble broke out, security was increased and local police stepped in to control the situation.
Such incidents frequently happen in football. Last year, FIFA fined Ivory Coast’s football federation $46,800 after 22 people died in a stampede at a World Cup qualifying match.