JOHANNESBURG, June 9 – Nelson Mandela gave the World Cup the ultimate pre-tournament boost Tuesday as his family declared the 91-year-old anti-apartheid icon would be among the crowds when the event kicks off.As the country put the finishing touches to preparations, rolling out the continent’s first high-speed rail link and unveiling plans to bus fans from stadium to stadium, the announcement about Mandela removed one of the biggest worries for organisers who are desperate for him to attend.
Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, who acts as the family’s spokesman, had previously said that his grandfather was too frail to make such an appearance.
But he told AFP that he would in fact attend the opener on Friday at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, albeit only briefly.
"He will come and greet the fans… before he retires to his home," said Zwelivelile Mandela.
"We’re trying to see how long he will stay at the stadium. At least 10 to 15 minutes."
Sello Hating, a spokesman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, confirmed that "Mr Mandela has expressed an interest to attend the game" although he said that he would only make a final decision on the day.
Danny Jordaan, the chief executive of the local organising committee, said it would be the icing on the cake if Mandela did turn up.
"It will be just wonderful if he can make it," he told SABC television. "We will keep our fingers crossed for that."
Mandela’s lobbying was seen as the deciding factor six years ago when FIFA handed South Africa the right to stage the tournament for the first time on African soil.
Since then, it has faced almost endless accusations that it is no place to host the world’s biggest sporting event because it is either too crime-ridden or lacking in infrastructure.
It went at least some way towards silencing that criticism on Tuesday by opening the Gautrain, a three-billion-dollar rail link which can whisk passengers from Johannesburg’s main airport into the uptown Sandton district.
The 160-kilometre-an-hour (100 mph) link will be one of the key legacies of the tournament and is intended to show that Africa can build transport facilities to rival those of anywhere in the world.
"I have been in Johannesburg just for one hour — the airport and here — but I really thought this was a first world service," Costa Rican football journalist Gustavo Jimenez told AFP as he stepped off the train at Sandton.
Security guards outnumbered passengers on the first day, reflecting the desire by authorities to deflect fears that a country with one of the world’s highest crime rates is no place to stage the world’s biggest sporting event.
Tickets from the airport to Sandton cost around 13 dollars, a small fortune for most South Africans but much cheaper than the cost of a taxi ride.
And while traffic snarl-ups mean the journey usually takes around an hour, the Gautrain will cover the distance in around a quarter of that time.
Strikes and subsidence problems have ensured that only the link to Sandton, a swanky suburb home to the Johannesburg stock exchange and a massive shopping mall, has opened in time for the World Cup.
Janet Gallagher, who lives near the airport but often travels to Sandton, was one of the first passengers.
"In the morning at rush hour, it can take up to two hours. You can’t compare … It was so fast," she told AFP.
As well as the Gautrain opening, a new train station opened in Cape Town and the government announced plans for a special bus service to ferry spectators between host cities, dropping them off close to the stadium before every match.
With the kick-off only three days away, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the fact that Africa was finally hosting the event was "a triumph for humanity".
"This is the pride of Africa, a beacon for people around the world, especially developing countries. This is the moment of dreams coming true," he told journalists before attending a charity gala dinner.
But the preparations were not entirely problem-free, with cell phone users finding it next to impossible to get a connection.