JOHANNESBURG -- South Africans will receive 120,000 free tickets to next year's World Cup, a move organizers say will ensure that South Africa's poor share in becoming the first African nation to host the world's most popular sporting event.
FIFA said on Friday that its 2010 World Cup Ticket Fund is the first of its kind in the tournament's 80 years.
Soccer's world governing body had already set low ticket prices for South African residents, starting at about $17, compared to $80 for international tickets. But with more than a quarter of the work force unemployed, and many of those who do have jobs earning $10 a day or less, even cheap seats are out of reach.
Jabu Humphrey Ngoaile, a Johannesburg university student, said he would like to see a World Cup match, but had other priorities for his money such as tuition and feeding his son.
"Even working people will not, for instance, take half of their salary just to go watch a match," he said. "It's too much."
The bulk of the free tickets will be distributed by FIFA's sponsors: adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates airline, Hyundai, Kia, Sony and Visa. They will focus on poor fans working in fields such as health care and education.
Construction workers who have been building stadiums and other infrastructure for the tournament will get 40,000 of the 120,000 free tickets.
The monthlong tournament kicks off in 300 days in Johannesburg, and chief local organizer Danny Jordaan has repeatedly been asked whether everything would be ready.
"The workers said yes, and we say thank you," Jordaan said at Friday's announcement of the free-ticket initiative.
Tens of thousands of stadium and transportation project workers went on strike for a week last month over wages, but Jordaan said Friday that time lost during the strike was being made up.
"There's floodlights at night and the workers are working," he said, speaking at the Soweto site where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists gathered in 1955 to set out their vision of a better future.
Now a public plaza with a convention hall and street market, the site is a symbol of what South Africa has overcome. But the presence of shacks nearby shows the persistence of apartheid's legacy of poverty and inequality.
"There's a big segment of our society that will not be able to afford to buy a ticket" to the World Cup, Jordaan said.
A short drive from where he spoke, cement trucks and earth movers were kicking up dust as work continued on Soccer City, the World Cup's main stadium.
Jerry Lephalala, a 24-year-old fan who'd been looking for work for a year, said he'd just gotten a job on the site. Some of his $17 daily earnings -- the cost of a seat at the games -- would go to buy World Cup tickets for himself and friends, he said.
"We're going to host this one well," he said. "All the world is coming."