World primed for a football feast
© AFP

The wait is almost over. At 4pm (CAT) tomorrow, a FIFA World Cup™ like none of the 18 that have gone before will begin and not only South Africa but an entire continent will rejoice. Over the next 31 days a footballing and cultural fiesta will unravel in Nelson Mandela's homeland and the colour, noise and excitement promise to stun the senses.

From 15 May 2004, when South Africa was invited to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to this moment – with the big kick-off between the host nation and Mexico but hours away – the resonance of the first world finals to be held on the continent of Africa has proved an inspiration for millions. In footballing terms South Africa have some way to go to join the elite. They are down at 83rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and have just a solitary FIFA World Cup victory to their name, 1-0 over Slovenia in 2002. But as it becomes the 16th nation to stage football's greatest event, South Africa will dominate the world's sporting consciousness like never before.

As a country they believe it will bring significant changes, uniting black and white around the green and gold of the Bafana Bafana jersey and lengthening the distance between today and a troubled past. With their noisy vuvuzelas and inherent exuberance they promise to make this a spectacle that our eyes and ears will not forget for a long, long time. That goes for players as well, the superstar names – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney – and the rest who have travelled from all four corners of the globe to showcase their skills in ten magnificent stadiums

The footballing calendar is so congested it can sometimes be difficult to generate real excitement around an event with another, equally big and exciting competition following swiftly on. South Africa 2010 promises to be different as it unleashes the potential of a continent whose teams have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a FIFA World Cup before.

In the seven months since all 32 contestants became known, conjecture has swirled from north to south, east to west, as to who will be the likely winners. Can Brazil make it to a sixth title? Will Spain, crowned European champions for the first time two years ago, take the vital last step to global dominance? Can Diego Maradona inspire Argentina from the bench in the same mercurial fashion as he managed on the pitch in 1986? Will England under their Italian coach at last bolt some tangible achievement on to their undoubted potential? Can Italy repeat their success of the 1930s in winning back-to-back competitions?

Similarly, will it be the host nation, Cameroon (making their sixth appearance at the global showpiece), or the talented Côte d'Ivoire who lead the African charge? All will become clear over the next five weeks until only two teams are left standing and, at Soccer City Stadium, they will dispute the right to be called world champions for the next four years before it all starts up again at Brazil 2014.

The same awe-inspiring Johannesburg venue, which witnessed Mandela's first mass rally following his 1990 release, will stage tomorrow's Opening Match, the first of 64 games. In one sense, it is familiar territory for the South Africa coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, as he prepares to lead a team at his sixth FIFA World Cup, which is a new record. In another respect, it will be like nothing he has experienced before, with the recurring hopes of a FIFA World Cup host nation lent an extra dimension by the passion and fervour with which the Rainbow Nation's people will back their team.

There are exciting games to anticipate in all ten venues. There is the traditional 'group of death' – commonly perceived to be Group G, where Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire, Portugal and Korea DPR lock horns – and match-ups that renew long-standing rivalries. Only one newcomer has joined the party - Slovakia - while two coaches will attempt to emulate Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo in becoming FIFA World Cup winners as player and coach. They call Johannesburg the City of Gold and there could be no more appropriate setting for the winners of the 2010 FIFA World Cup to clasp the gleaming Trophy above their heads. Before that moment, late in the evening of 11 July, a huge number of unforgettable stories are waiting to be written.