JOHANNESBURG, June 9 – South Africa whipped itself into a World Cup frenzy on Wednesday as the national side paraded through Johannesburg and holders Italy flew in to defend their crown, two days before the kick-off.Tens of thousands lined the streets of the Sandton business district to hail the Bafana Bafana national team, draping themselves in flags and honking the ear-splitting vuvuzela trumpets as the team came past on an open-top bus.
There were similar scenes throughout Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, as office workers left their buildings and lined the streets to blow vuvuzelas and wave South African flags, as passing cars tooted their horns.
Some wore clown wigs in national colours, and others had makarapas — hard hats carved and painted into the shape of footballers and flags.
Schoolchildren were dismissed at midday for a special month-long World Cup holiday, bringing many youngsters on to the sidewalk with their parents for the festivities.
The noise from the plastic vuvuzela horns, set to become one of the main talking points of the tournament, drowned out all conversation — including attempts by television journalists to deliver two-way reports to their studio.
Thousands also poured into the streets of Cape Town to answer a call on the radio to blow their vuvuzelas at lunchtime.
Zanele Ntuli, communication and events officer at a Cape Town NGO, joined workers who spilled out of offices around parliament, wearing a green fake fur Alice band with two South African flags sticking out the top.
"It was a national call to have a vuvuzela moment," he said.
"Never in my life did I think this would come to Africa, let alone South Africa."
As the government urged fans to be on their best behaviour for the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, South Africans also delighted in the prospect that their icon, Nelson Mandela, would be among the crowds at Friday’s opener.
The front-page of The Sowetan proclaimed the event would now be the "Mandela Show" while a headline in The Star read "Deafening Noise Can’t Curb Kick-off Fever", as it described final rehearsals for a World Cup concert on Thursday.
The sense of anticipation has been heightened by an unexpected upturn in the form of Bafana Bafana, who go into Friday’s opening match against Mexico on the back of a 12-match unbeaten run.
Ever since it became the first African nation to win the right to stage the tournament six years ago, South Africa has had to fend off claims that its high crime rate, lack of infrastructure and rudimentary public transport system rendered it an unsuitable choice.
Fears over crime were highlighted when armed robbers broke into a rural lodge where reporters covering Portugal are staying, holding one journalist at gunpoint before making off with cash, camera equipment and passports.
Sepp Blatter, president of football’s world governing body FIFA, has predicted that the tournament will be a triumph but has laced his comments with warnings that not everything will be perfect.
With work at all 10 stadiums completed and major World Cup transport projects now up and running, organisers hope the month-long tournament can overhaul perceptions about the world’s poorest continent.
Nearly all of the teams are now in situ, with Italy one of the last to fly in on Wednesday.
Dozens of police and a smattering of hardcore fans were at Johannesburg airport to greet the Azzuri, whose pre-tournament results have done little to encourage hope that they can retain their title.
One of the biggest worries for organisers was whether Mandela, the country’s first black leader and hero of the struggle against the whites-only apartheid regime, would be able to make it to the opening ceremony.
Mandela’s family had indicated that at 91 and increasingly frail such an appearance would be too much for him. But they announced on Tuesday that he would in fact attend, albeit probably not for the whole match.