JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Township parks and downturn squares across South Africa came alive with the blast of air horns and the dazzling yellow of the national team on Friday as jubilant fans flocked to watch their nation open the World Cup.
Massive television screens have been set up to make sure ordinary South Africans can watch “Bafana Bafana” (The Boys) take on Mexico in the opening game of the first World Cup to be held on African soil.
As tens of thousands of fans with tickets descended on the showpiece Soccer City stadium for the opening ceremony and first match, many more were getting into the party mood in their home cities.
“I couldn’t sleep last night because of the excitement and the noise,” said Tiisetso Mohapi, a 25-year-old businessman at a fan park set up in the central square of Bloemfontein.
All around, crowds of soccer lovers in the national colours sang gospel-style songs and bobbed around to the rhythm of pulsating African dances as vendors did a brisk trade in barbecued chicken and sausages.
South Africans hope the World Cup marks a new chapter for a country troubled by crime, AIDS and racial division 16 years after the end of apartheid, and patriotic spirits were running high.
“It has united the nation... the rainbow nation has gathered together... Bafana Bafana will win 3-0,” said 36-year-old teacher Disebo as she joined in the chorus in Bloemfontein.
In Johannesburg alone, about a dozen fan park sites have been set up, able to cater for some 100,000 supporters.
“There’s no place to be in the world except South Africa,” said Eddie van Rensburg, 28, at a fan park in the Melrose Arch office development just outside the city.
Cape Town’s “fan fest” site was packed before midday (1000 GMT and supporters were let in gradually to avert a repeat of the crush that injured six people at the site at a concert on Thursday.
The 25,000 capacity site has been built just outside the historic City Hall where Nelson Mandela delivered his first speech as a free man after his release from prison and with a stunning backdrop of Table Mountain and palm trees.
A spokesman for the City Hall said such crowds and celebrations had not been seen in the square since Mandela’s speech.
“I‘m here to feel the vibe. There is nowhere else in the world where you would experience a melting-pot like this,” said 23-year-old economics student Binita Ganca, from Cape Town.
Xoliswa Mashicila, 57, donning a yellow Bafana Bafana shirt, said she had come so her children and grandchildren could say in the future she had been there on June 11, watching the team.
“This is history for us South Africans. I just wanted to be part of it,” she said.
Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan, Serena Chaudhry and Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Michael Holden