, PRETORIA, Jun 6 – South Africa declared itself ready Sunday to stage the first World Cup on African soil, with President Jacob Zuma saying the event had shown how the Rainbow Nation had finally come together as one.
Five days before South Africa take on Mexico in the tournament opener, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said Africa as a whole could take a bow for its organisation efforts and the world\’s poorest continent could no longer be sidelined.
"We are truly pleased and humbled to host the world in our country for this historical and extraordinary event," Zuma told a press conference at his offices in the capital Pretoria.
"South Africa is more than ready. For us the World Cup has already begun."
The event is being held in South Africa some 16 years after the demise of the white supremacist apartheid regime which ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as the country\’s first black president.
While efforts to forge what South Africa\’s Nobel Prize winning archbishop Desmond Tutu called a Rainbow Nation have been fraught with difficulties, Zuma said the tournament had done wonders to bridge the lingering racial divide.
"The enthusiasm, joy and excitement that has engulfed the entire nation in the last few weeks has not been seen since President Nelson Mandela was released from prison" in 1990, said Zuma.
"The explosion of national pride has been a priceless benefit. It\’s clear that millions of our people look upon this tournament with hope, pride and sense of belonging.
"This augurs well for our nation-building," he added.
During his address, Zuma also paid tribute to Mandela whose lobbying for the tournament was seen as crucial in FIFA\’s decision to pick South Africa.
"At this point it is proper for me to acknowledge and thank our founding president and icon, Nelson Mandela, for his visionary leadership and statesmanship," said Zuma.
"He also worked hard personally to bring us to this glorious moment."
Zuma said he hoped Mandela would be present at the kick-off of the tournament in Johannesburg on Friday but said there were no guarantees.
Mandela\’s family has said that the 91-year-old is too frail to attend.
"He would love to be there. Whether he will be there on the day depends entirely on the former president," said Zuma.
"If he did not appear we would understand. If he is there it will be a bonus for this tournament. We wish he would be there."
Blatter, who met Mandela last week, said "it\’s his wish to be present and his spirit will be present" even if he is not able to attend.
The FIFA president said that he did not expect every aspect of the tournament to run without flaws but said organisers had already confounded sceptics who doubted Africa\’s ability to stage such an event.
All 10 stadia have been built or revamped on time, albeit well over budget, and nearly all tickets have been sold. Fears over crime also continue to dog the build-up.
But posing with the trophy, Blatter said he was a "happy man" and that his trust in Africa had been vindicated.
"Bringing the world cup to South Africa is to trust South Africa, South Africans to trust Africa and say you are strong," he said.
"Naturally it\’s not all perfect. No one can reach perfection," he said.
"It is the African World Cup and all the work to organise this competition has been made in this country.
"Compliments should be given to South Africa and the entire continent."