JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Nelson Mandela cancelled his appearance at the opening of the World Cup on Friday after his great granddaughter was killed in a car crash, casting a cloud over South Africa’s day of joy in hosting the continent’s first edition of the tournament.
Mandela, 91, is the much beloved father of post-apartheid South Africa and confirmation this week that he would attend had topped a frenzy of patriotic anticipation over the opening game, when the host side meets Mexico at 4 p.m. (1400 GMT).
Mandela, who is in frail health, pulled out after hearing the news that his great granddaughter Zenani, 13, had been killed on her way home from the World Cup kickoff concert on Thursday night.
The driver was arrested and police said they were investigating a case of culpable homicide.
Zenani was one of the nine great-grandchildren of Mandela, whose vast charisma and prestige is credited with helping South Africa win the World Cup bid in 2004.
“We are sure that South Africans and people all over the world will stand in solidarity with Mr Mandela and his family in the aftermath of this tragedy,” the former president’s foundation said.
The death cast a shadow over the unprecedented excitement in South Africa, which was tormented for years by negative and even domestic pessimism that the world’s most watched sporting event was too big for Africa to handle.
That pessimism has been transformed in recent weeks and South Africans of all races can scarcely contain their pride at being in the world spotlight.
“We have been waiting for years for this moment, praying that it would happen,” said local fan Nicolas Sello, 54. He came to Soccer City at dawn a full 10 hours before kickoff wearing a specially-tailored shirt resembling the national flag.
He was not alone making an early start. Vuvuzela trumpets could be heard before dawn around the nation.
Pumping up the atmosphere, scores of Mexican fans dressed as mariachi singers in wide-brimmed hats joked with the South Africans outside the stadium, vowing to ruin their big day.
Successfully hosting this tournament for the first time in Africa will mean much more for the hosts than just sport.
Racial reconciliation, the affirmation of an often troubled post-apartheid nation, future investment and millions of tourist dollars could be at stake.
It is also a symbol of Africa’s emergence from decades stereotyped as a continent of disaster, conflict and failure into a dynamic region winning ever-more foreign investment.
The once-improbable dream kicks off later on Friday when in Johannesburg’s 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium, shaped like a calabash or local cooking pot.
The Mexicans have to contend not only with a frenzy of patriotic fervour but also the ear-splitting din of the vuvuzela trumpets, so loud they can make communication between players and coaches almost impossible.
Once mocked even by their compatriots as hopeless under-achievers, and still one of the lowest-rated World Cup hosts, at 83rd in the rankings, South Africa come off a run of 12 unbeaten matches and are new national idols.
A string of comparatively minor crimes against journalists and three Greek players in recent days have highlighted risks in one of the globe’s most violent countries outside a war zone.
Six people were injured in a crowd crush at Cape Town’s main World Cup fan zone on Thursday when thousands tried to get in.
The death of Mandela’s great grand-daughter, a day after three British tourists died in a bus crash, highlighted the fact visitors face as much danger on the roads as from crime.
But the biggest distractions for the South African team are the weight of expectation and joyful street parades.
Their Brazilian manager, Carlo Alberto Parreira, said they could understand the euphoria. “I don’t want my players to be affected by all of that,” he said. “Now we have a World Cup game ... we want to make this country proud.”
Mexico’s confidence has been boosted by victory over defending champions Italy last week.
In Friday’s other Group A game, France will be under pressure against Uruguay in Cape Town after unimpressive warm-up games, culminating in a worrying 1-0 defeat by China.
Les Bleus look a far cry from the dominant team that won the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000. Uruguay, though unfancied, have had impressive wins against Switzerland and Israel.
- Additional reporting by Reuters reporters across South Africa
Writing by Barry Moody and Andrew Cawthorne, editing by Jon Bramley