South Africa whipped itself into a FIFA World Cup™ frenzy today 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 Bafana Bafana, draping themselves in flags and honking vuvuzela trumpets as the team waved at them from an open-top bus. There were similar scenes throughout Johannesburg, 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 FIFA 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.
"It was a national call to have a vuvuzela moment," said Zanele Ntuli among the crowds outside parliament "Never in my life did I think this would come to Africa, let alone South Africa."
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. South Africans were ecstatic 14 years ago after the team won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations on home soil but the national football association said Wednesday's turn-out beat all records. "This is the biggest show of public support for our team in the history of the professional game," said chief executive Leslie Sedibe.
A spokesman for the local organising committee said everything was in place but added that opening-day traffic jams remain a concern. "We urge the 90,000 spectators who will be coming here to exercise restraint when it comes to using their own cars, because there are buses and there are trains which will drop them right at the door," said Rich Mkhondo.
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 Gli Azzuri, whose pre-tournament results have done little to encourage hope that they can retain their title.