All eyes on South Africa, Mexico as World Cup begins
The moment South Africa has been waiting for as finally arrived.
Its national soccer team, or "Bafana Bafana" to the locals, takes on Mexico today (10 a.m., ESPN) in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup.
The country's excitement has reached a boil, but the overall mood was tempered on the eve of the tournament with the news that the great grandaughter of Nelson Mandela was killed in a car crash on the way home from a pre-World Cup concert in Soweto. Zenani Mandela was 13.
As a result, the ex-president will not be at today's opening ceremony or game in Johannesburg.
The South Africa and Mexico match begins what should be an interesting and unpredictable Group A at the World Cup. Later today, France takes on Uruguay at 2:30 p.m.
Although South Africa is not expected to win the group, the other three teams all have a shot. Of course, France, Uruguay and Mexico could finish last, as well. We'll know more in the next 12 hours.
South Africa, though only ranked 83rd in the world, still carries the weight of exceling as the host nation. Not once in 18 previous tournaments has the host nation failed to advance out of the group stage at the World Cup. At the last three World Cups, the three host nations all made it to at least the semifinals. That won't happen here, but South Africa still can manage a Round of 16 appearance with the support of the home crowd.
South Africa's team will be buoyed by midfielder Steven Pienaar, who American fans may know if they kept up with Landon Donovan's exploits overseas in the English Premier League with Everton earlier this year. Pienaar is an extremely clever and quick player in the middle of the field and will look to put on a show in front of the home fans.
The controversial exclusion of all-time leading scorer, Benni McCarthy, has opened the door for Aaron Mokoena to lead the team as captain. Mokoena also plays in the EPL -- for Portsmouth.
For Mexico, young stars Gio dos Santos and Carlos Vela will hope to blend with veterans Rafael Marquez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco to make yet another run out of the first round. Problems usually await the Mexicans later, as they've been bounced in the Round of 16 in four consecutive tournaments.
The world is ready. The South African are ready. Their vuvuzelas are ready, too. Let the month-long party begin.