‘Welcome to Bloemfontein, the city of roses,' reads a bold signage as you approach the beautiful artistic city in Mangaung.
The introduction's irony is, besides the dry vegetation that is paraded along the roadside, the only blossoming flowers you are likely to encounter are in the city centre - and even there, they are in a clear minority.
But maybe the signage's creators had their mind on the city's colourful football supporters, often clad in green-and-white hoops of Bloemfontein Celtic, who you will encounter on almost every street corner, irrespective of whether it is a match day. Such is the penchant for the sport that it is, locals will attest, firmly part of the culture.
Situated at the heart of the country, Bloemfontein has transformed itself into a preferred football destination over the past few years, and South Africa will be banking on the excitement consistently generated there to flavour the FIFA Confederations Cup in six month's time. Indeed, Bloemfontein is one of four Host Cities for the competition, along with Johannesburg, Rustenburg and Pretoria/ Tshwane.
Plans are already afoot to raise Bloemfontein's appeal, which include engaging locals in adopting some of the teams who will play their games at the replenished Free State Stadium. "We are satisfied with the upgrading of our stadium and we are looking forward in hosting the football giants and our Bafana Bafana," George Mohlakoana, Mangaung's CEO for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, told FIFA.com.
"Recently we hosted the tour of the world agencies and the feedback we got was very positive. Everyone was impressed with what we have achieved so far. We are not resting, we are working around the clock to make sure we meet all stipulated demands, including IT&T services required for the stadium media centre and outside broadcasting."
Bloemfontein is the capital of the Free State province and also acts as the judicial capital of South Africa. Its city hall is a magnificent sandstone building built by Sir Gordon Leith, and Bloemfontein also has an inner game reserve. The Free State is bordered by four of South Africa's nine provinces, and the country of Lesotho. It has a wealth of culture and history, reflected by its rich architectural heritage, numerous museums and monuments.
The Free State Stadium has hosted major football and rugby union matches before, and Bloemfontein's natives are renowned for their passion for both sports. While the former played second fiddle to the latter for decades, football's popularity explosion - aided by the emergence of Bloemfontein Celtic - is changing this.
The Celtic fans are known as Siwelele, a Sotho term. Sotho is one of the 11 official languages in South Africa and, along with Afrikaans, the most-spoken in the Free State, although English is also widely used. Free State Stars, formerly Qwa-Qwa Stars, are another established team from the area.