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South Africa welcomes the Confederations Cup

While the Confederations Cup may mean little to its non-competing nations, South Africans are treating the FIFA tournament as a sure-fire sign that the World Cup is on its way.

While previous competitions may have been greeted with apathy by local fans, the same cannot be said of South Africa's devoted football supporters.

"The best thing is that we're going to see lots of people coming to South Africa and we're going to gain in lots of areas, particularly business," says Lebo, one of South Africa's many female fans. "Bafana Bafana are going to do well but I'm also thrilled about seeing the likes of Spain and Brazil."

"I'm very, very excited about the Confederations Cup," agrees Karabo, 26. "It's going to support the economy of our country, and it's going to test the stadiums to see if they are ready for 2010. I'm definitely happy."

And the preconceived benefits just keep on coming, as World Cup heavyweights Spain, Brazil and Italy roll into town for the June 14-28 tournament ahead of the big one next year.

"We've never seen teams like this here before all at the same time, but luckily only Spain are in our group!" says 25-year-old Njabulo. "The atmosphere around the Confederations Cup is just going to be brilliant."

"We're going to be meeting lots of different nationalities, especially the Spanish and the Brazilians," beams Fadelo, 25. "The whole experience is going to be great."

The eighth edition of the tournament is the first to be staged in Africa and finds the hosts taking on Iraq, New Zealand and Spain, while Group B features Italy, Brazil, Egypt and the United States.

Despite recently ending gruelling seasons, the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Fernando Torres, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andrea Pirlo and Fabio Cannavaro are all coming to town - delighting South Africans who follow European football avidly on satellite television.

After a slow uptake, fans are being lured in by the 'Festival of Champions' with sales of the 640,000 tickets available having reached the 70% mark - meaning the tournament is still in line to be the best attended ever.

The games will be played out at four World Cup venues but for those who can't afford a ticket, public viewing areas have been set up in central Johannesburg where a play area and gaming zone are available for children while their parents tune in to the 'soccer'.

The enthusiasm for a competition which has been heavily built up across all forms of media over the past few months is perhaps best highlighted by two tales.

Last weekend, some 20,000 Johannesburg citizens gave up their Saturday to clean various areas of the city as they attempt to portray it in a greater light than its usual association with grime and crime.

"For the Confederations Cup, a total of 8,000 members of the South African security services, including the police, army, metro police and emergency services, will be deployed," says FIFA's media officer Delia Fischer on that note.

Yet even the criminals themselves have caught the Confederations Cup buzz, with the Zonderwater Correctional Services centre just outside Pretoria recently staging the Gauteng Offenders Confederations Cup. Complete with an Olympic-style opening ceremony and medals for the winners, superstitious fans will be hoping that Bafana Bafana do better than the South African team which didn't get out of its group.

Having failed to lead them to the 2010 Nations Cup, Brazilian coach Joel Santana is not the most popular man in South Africa and has only managed one competitive victory in his 13 months in charge - against lowly Equatorial Guinea.

Yet the supporters veer between being wildly optimistic and wholly pessimistic, with their questionable chances of success heavily resting on the shoulders of captain Aaron Mokoena, Steven Pienaar and local playmaker Teko Modise.

Nonetheless, they will be out in force to back their favourites, wearing their trademark miner's hats, oversized glasses and wielding their vuvuzellas: the long plastic trumpets which are set to be remembered long after South Africa 2010 is over.

"The heart says Bafana Bafana will do well because I'm supporting the team and I love my Bafana Bafana," smiles Prince, 40. "But the head says it's going to be tough."

He can be reassured that a large financial carrot will be driving on his favourites, with the South African players promised US$80,000 apiece for winning the tournament while each man will receive around US$50,000 should they reach the semi-finals.

The 2010 World Cup hosts open against Asian champions Iraq on Sunday at Ellis Park, knowing a win is critical if they are to emerge from Group A. They can be buoyed from knowing that while they beat Poland 1-0 in a friendly last Saturday, the Iraqis could only muster a draw against that same nation on Tuesday night.

Yet the greatest excitement about the Confederations Cup for most is not the actual competition but the bare-faced reminder that the world's greatest sporting event will be coming to town in just 12 months.

"This is the starter to the main course, which is of course the World Cup," adds Bafana Bafana fan Prince. "We can't wait."


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