By Tony Ubani
JOHANNESBURGâ€”THE stage is set for the biggest sports show on earth and world attention is focused on South Africa as the one-month soccer fiesta kicks off this afternoon at the Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg.
Expectations are high, dreams are waiting to be fulfilled and hearts are going to be broken when the drama begins to unfold. And outside the soccer contest, the football family is waiting to see how SA 2010 will play out: It is the first time the World Cup is being staged on the African soil. The South Africans have no option than to make a good show of it and earn the continent a resounding applause.
They are already doing that.
The opening ceremonies this afternoon will feature the parade of African cultural heritage and also showcase the significant and infra-structural progress the continent has made. It will include rich African artistic talents, established and emerging as well as exciting new performances.
The line-up of African artistes includes Hugh Masekela, Ghanaâ€™s legendary Osibisa, and Nigeriaâ€™s Femi Kuti who will perform his famous â€˜Bang, Bang, Bangâ€™ song.
The theme of the opening ceremony is â€˜Welcoming the World Home.â€™ Highlight of the day will be the appearance of Dr. Nelson Mandela, considered to be the father of the new South African nation. His appearance, today, was a subject of speculation, but it was confirmed that he would be strong enough to grace the occasion.
The World Cup was dedicated to Mr. Mandela by FIFA and South Africa President, Jacob Zuma.
Yesterday, world top pop, hip-hop and jazz artistes set the celebration of soccer rolling with a concert at the Orlando Stadium in Johannesburgâ€™s Soweto township. Among the headline concerts were Colombian diva Shakira, US soul singers, Alicia Keys and John Legend, and US hip-hop outfit, Black Eyed Peas.
Africa was also well represented in the mix, with stars such as Beninoise singer and songwriter, Angelique Kidjo; two-time Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir, and Malian Tuareg band, Tinariwen, rocking capacity crowd of around 30,000 people.
First blood of the contest
Once the opening ceremonies are over, South Africa and Mexico will take to the field and draw the first blood of the contest.
Against a backdrop of fevered enthusiasm and the deafening noise of vuvuzelas at Johannesburgâ€™s cavernous Soccer City, an entertaining tone for the tournament is likely to be set by two teams who are much better going forward than defending.
Impressive results and performances from both sides in their warm-up games suggest a capacity crowd of almost 90,000 could be treated to a memorable opening of the 64-match event.
South Africa is the third African side to play in a World Cup opener, the two previous matches ending in shock triumphs for Cameroon over Argentina in 1990 and Senegal against France in 2002.
A home win today would not be as big a surprise, such has been the hostsâ€™ vast improvement in form, but it would still be a boost for South Africa and its tournament.
Nigeria is not left out of the World Cup frenzy. A Federal Government delegation to the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals reached South Africa, yesterday.
The delegation to the tournament was led by the President of the Senate, Senator David Mark, who flew into Johannesburg aboard a presidential jet on Thursday evening.
Earlier in the morning, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Odein Ajumogobia, Minister of Information and Communications, Professor Dora Akunyili; Minister of Culture and Tourism, Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed, as well as Senators and Members of House of Representatives flew into the Oliver Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg as advance party.
Nigeria Football Association executive committee members were not left out of the show as they arrived at the teamâ€™s Richardâ€™s Bay camp just before the teamâ€™s training session yesterday afternoon. Chief Obinna Ogba, Alhaji Abubakar Ladan, Dr. Peter Singabele, Alhaji Aminu Maigari, Dr. Shehu Adamu, Mr. Stephen Gyebgon and Mr. Patrick Ekong watched the teamâ€™s training session while Princess Bola Jegede was on the way from Johannesburg.
Also in town are members of the Presidential Task Force on Nigeriaâ€™s qualification and participation at the finals, led by the Chairman, Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State.