JOHANNESBURG: South Africa is ready to play on the international football stage for the first time.
All eight teams competing in this month s Confederations Cup – including World Cup holder Italy, European champion Spain and South American winner Brazil – have arrived in the southernmost country in Africa and are preparing for their group matches.
The hosts open the 16-match tournament on Sunday against Iraq at Ellis Park, and the team has already been feeling the pressure from the local fans.
The last time South Africans had a huge tournament in 1996, the guys played there and won it, said South Africa midfielder Teko Modise, referring to that year s African Cup of Nations. I can really say the same is expected of us.
Really, though, FIFA and many football fans around the world are just hoping that the South Africans can pull off a successful event only 15 years after the end of apartheid.
The Confederations Cup is being used as a warm-up tournament for the country that will next year host the first World Cup on African soil. Although transport and crime remain major concerns, the locals want to show they can get everything done on time.
It s definitely time to kick off now, not only in terms of the organization in South Africa, but in terms of making sure they can deliver and will deliver, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said. That s why this Confederations Cup, one year before the big event, is crucial.
The notoriously energetic and colorful local fans have already started to show what they can do, too, playing their vuvuzela trumpets and cheering for their favorite players at various training grounds around the country.
It s great to watch players from our favorite teams, said Lerato Mabe, a 36-year-old teacher who was watching Spain train in Rustenburg. It s a great first for the South Africans.
Spain, Italy and Brazil should draw the biggest crowds – with the exception of South Africa, affectionately known as Bafana Bafana by the locals – over the next two weeks. But Iraq, Egypt, the United States and New Zealand are also playing at the tournament for the six continental champions, the World Cup holders and the host.
Although the event is not always the most competitive, several world famous players have made the trip to South Africa, including Brazil midfielder Kaka and Spain striker Fernando Torres.
Kaka, who helped his country to a pair of World Cup qualifying wins before flying to South Africa, is looking to help the team win its second straight Confederations Cup title and third overall.
It s important to arrive at a competition like this coming off two great victories, Kaka said. Brazil is motivated and full of confidence.
While teams are opening some practices to the public, they are also taking care to stay safe in a country with ruthless criminals.
Security is tight here, said Godfrey Kealeboga a hotel guard in Bloemfontein, where Brazil is staying. We are not allowed to let anyone too close to the players. The fans won t be able to see anybody here.
The United States, however, held an open practice in front of about 300 kids, many of them orphaned because of the country s AIDS epidemic.
You see the smile and look in their eyes how excited they are, United States coach Bob Bradley said.
They ll be smiling even more if South Africa can lift the trophy after the final match on June 28th at Ellis Park.
We ll talk on the 28th when the tournament has finished, South Africa midfielder Steven Pienaar said with a smile. Hopefully the trophy will stay here.