He may have skippered the first South Africa team to play on the world stage but Lucas Radebe says nothing can compare with the excitement currently sweeping the host country with 24 hours to go before the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ kicks off.
For Radebe, who wore the captain's armband for Bafana Bafana for many years, the thought of what lies ahead for the Rainbow Nation over the coming month is giving him "goose bumps". He told FIFA.com: "I'm not sure if I will be able to sleep the night before kick-off. This is big for us, bigger than any of us have seen in our lifetime. I have been fortunate to play at two World Cups, but nothing compares with a feeling of hosting this tournament on our own soil, absolutely nothing."
Clive Barker, who was coach of the Bafana Bafana side that won the 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, was in agreement, saying nothing in the country's sporting history could compare with hosting the FIFA World Cup before a watching planet. From 2pm (CAT) tomorrow, the world's attention will focus on Johannesburg's Soccer City for the start of the tournament's Opening Ceremony. By 4pm, when Carlos Parreira's side kick off against Mexico, the entire country is set for an explosion of euphoria and Barker believes it can mark "a new dawn".
For many South Africans there are three notable moments in their recent history: the first democratic elections on 27 April 1994, the 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, and the footballers' CAN success in February 1996. Recalling the third of those events, Barker said: "I remember that day when we won the Nations Cup, the whole country went crazy. Even today, I still look back at that day and smile. To me, it showed the power of sport in changing a country."
Unifying force at work
Viewing the scenes at the South Africa squad's pre-finals parade in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton yesterday, Barker said he could sense an even stronger force at work. He explained: "To most of us, 1994 was a miracle when people of all races were, for the first time, afforded a chance to vote. But that sadly happened at a time when our country was badly divided along racial lines. We spoke about unity, but in reality, we didn't really have unity. But today, I was walking around and I saw black and white wearing the Bafana jersey blowing a vuvuzela. For me, that was moving. It was then that I felt that this was genuinely an opportunity to heal this country and mark a new dawn in our history."
With similar parades happening in every major city, the whole of South Africa came to a grinding halt yesterday. People from all cultures and races gathered, turning city streets into a tapestry of yellow and green – and creating quite a din with their ceaseless blowing of vuvuzelas. They danced and sang and embraced. Such scenes are not seen often in South Africa but then a first FIFA World Cup on African soil really is something to celebrate.
Victoria 'Mama' Vuma, 70, was among the crowds of people in Sandton. She said: "This is unbelievable – to see everyone on the streets here holding hands and celebrating, I'm completely overwhelmed. I never thought I would live to see such a day in our country." It is less than two decades since South Africa began emerging from a painful past and the 'Rainbow Nation' – as Archbishop Desmond Tutu refers to the country – has never seen anything like it. Ronald Molatedi, another onlooker in Sandton, summed it up aptly: "What we are seeing today is the power that can only come with the World Cup, that is all I can say." Lucas Radebe will not be the only one not sleeping tonight.