South Africa Celebrates Even Before First Game

For the past three days, the soccer World Cup has drawn thousands to the streets - 185,000 in Johannesburg to cheer the national team Wednesday, and more than that to attend and watch the simulcast of the kickoff concert Thursday night. The national team plays Mexico on Friday.

In Soweto, the sprawling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, Orlando Stadium stands as a modern soccer marvel. It was built in only two years, on the site of a rickety venue that occupied ground where mines once dumped their slag and runoff. It's now up to FIFA World Cup standards, and perhaps more impressively, it's Black Eyed Peas-worthy.

You have to love a country that goes bonkers for Fergie and will.I.am, who have shown up at past Super Bowls, Democratic National Conventions, even the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup.

More than a few of South Africa's native sons were on hand, including Vusi Mahlasela, the singer-songwriter known as The Voice. Mahlasela made it clear he was not addressing a crowd of mere visitors.

"This one is to welcome everybody home to Africa in the cradle of humankind," he said.

In one song, Mahlasela spoke of the time, during the apartheid era, when poets left the country. He used the metaphor of nation as skeleton.

The next man to hit the stage talked about the apartheid era as being an ugly worm or caterpillar, but now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu assured the international audience, a butterfly had sprouted wings.

"You can feel it. You can touch it," he said. "I'm dreaming, man. I'm dreaming. Wake me up."

Fifteen miles away, Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton was one of many noisy gathering places. But in the shadow of an 18-foot-tall statue of post-apartheid South Africa's first president, the South Africans' opening match opponents, the Mexicans, brought some music of there own: mariachi.

Talk about soccer being an international game: 12-year-old Zinedine Huerta is from the U.S., rooting for Mexico in South Africa, and, of course, named after a great French player. Zinedine's father, Gabrielle Heurta, said he's attending his fifth World Cup.

"Mexico City -- I was 10 years old," he said. "It was very important because it changed my life, changed my vision of my life."

At these festivities, the Dutch wore the funniest hats, the Argentines the brightest wigs, the Algerians kept reminding people, "Hey we're Africans, too," and South Africans like Isabella Desai were brimming with pride.

"I think my country's going to do an amazing job and people should stop doubting South Africa," she said.

In Mandela Square, the crowd included three masked men -- not criminals, but luchadores, or Mexican wrestlers. If their team wins Friday, perhaps they will show their faces. If the South Africans pull the upset, it can't get much louder. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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