JOHANNESBURG, July 10 – South Africa began its long farewell to the World Cup with a celebration parade Friday through the streets of Soweto, two days ahead of the decisive final between the Netherlands and Spain.Four brightly coloured floats inspired by football themes made a three-kilometre (two-mile) procession, led by children dancing around a giant replica of Soccer City and a puppet of "Mama Africa".
"Carnival in Soweto is normally the last day of the year, but because of the World Cup, it’s now," said Maphiwe Ndaba as the parade rolled by.
"It’s good that soccer carnival came to Soweto. Many people can enjoy it. They can celebrate soccer."
Beginning at a modern shopping mall and ending in a plaza flanked by a posh hotel, the route was another expression of the "new" South Africa that the nation has projected around the globe during the tournament.
The township was a hotbed of resistance to the white-minority apartheid regime, but now the showpiece stadium Soccer City sits at its doorstep, highlighting Johannesburg’s steady transformation 16 years after the first all-race elections.
President Jacob Zuma has praised the social unity inspired by the World Cup, though some already wonder how long that spirit will last.
"It feels like you are in a World Cup finale," said Evans Shivambu, along the parade route. "But after, it will be quiet and there won’t be any whites any more in Soweto."
Sports authorities, however, have already moved an international rugby test match to Soccer City, saying they hope to provide a way for white and black fans to keep mixing in the stands.
For the weekend of the final, major hotel chains reported that they were fully booked throughout Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and the nearby capital Pretoria.
FIFA says tickets to the match are sold out, while the global television audience is expected to reach 500 million viewers.
Colombian pop star Shakira will headline the closing ceremony ahead of the match, where 15 heads of state are expected to attend — most controversially Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, target of a European and US travel ban.
South Africa’s biggest Hollywood star Charlize Theron has reportedly arrived back home for the final, along with Morgan Freeman, who played Nelson Mandela in last year’s film "Invictus".
Police said they were finalising security arrangements, which would include restrictions on the city’s main highway to ease the flow of traffic to the stadium.
Airport officials warned the VIPs they would tighten policies for private jets ahead of the final, after some fans missed Spain’s semi-final win over Germany when a logjam in landing spots delayed for six commercial aircraft.
Transport authorities were also warning fans to make plans to arrive early for the game, preferably on public transport, with commuter trains offering free rides to ticket holders.
FIFA says overall attendance at all World Cup matches has topped three million, only the third tournament to do so, partly because of the enormous stadiums that South Africa built for the games.
"Africa can be proud, South Africa even more so, and African football can also be proud," FIFA president Sepp Blatter told a news conference. "We are almost at the end, but I am a satisfied president."
South Africa has also overcome fears about crime during the tournament. The country has a staggering crime rate, with an average 50 murders a day, but only a handful of violent crimes have been linked to the World Cup.
Meanwhile Paul, the octopus oracle who has so far successfully predicted the outcome of six World Cup matches, appears to have won the loyalty of British punters, said bookmakers Paddy Power.
Many who had formerly backed the Netherlands to beat Spain in Sunday’s World Cup final are switching sides after the mystic cephalopod picked a box representing Spain in a ceremony shown live on German television Friday.