Africa''s first World Cup kicks off

JOHANNESBURG: Africa''s first World Cup kicked off on Friday with unfancied hosts South Africa taking on Mexico in front of 95,000 spectators in a packed Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg.

Before the kick-off, hundreds of dancers filled the stadium with the colours of the African continent and the air was filled with the sound of thousands of the vuvuzela trumpets which are set to be a feature of the tournament.

One heartbroken absentee from the crowd was Nelson Mandela, who decided he could not join the festivities following the death of his great granddaughter in a car crash.

The country''s first post-apartheid president pulled out of the festivities as he mourned 13-year-old Zenani Mandela, who died as she was being driven home from a pre-tournament concert.

The tragedy throws a shadow over an event which is about far more than just football.

South Africa''s pride in making history as the first African hosts has shone through as the Rainbow Nation rides a wave of euphoria not seen since the collapse of apartheid and Mandela''s subsequent election.

What the organisers fear now is that the South African team - ranked just 83rd by FIFA - will become the first World Cup host nation in history to fail to progress through the group stages.

Bafana Bafana (The Boys) face a tough task in a group including 1998 winners and 2006 runners-up France, and World Cup old hands Mexico and Uruguay.

Steven Pienaar, one of South Africa''s few recognised stars, said the players will be as excited as the fans when the match starts at 1400 GMT.

"We have waited so long for this moment," said the midfielder who plays for Everton in the English Premier League.

"As children we dreamt of the day South Africa would play in the World Cup."

The captain, Aaron Mokoena, said: "Some South Africans do not give us a chance at this level and we are desperate to prove them wrong and hold our own.

"I believe we can surprise some people by qualifying for the second round."