Johannesburg: Nelson Mandela’s great grand-daughter was killed in a car crash on Friday hours before the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, a tragic note amid revelry for the biggest sports event the continent has held.
Former President Mandela, 91, is credited with helping South Africa win the World Cup bid in 2004 as well as ending apartheid, and South Africans hoped he would be at the opening match between the hosts and Mexico despite his frail health.
Zenani Mandela, killed two days after her 13th birthday, was one of Mandela’s nine great-grandchildren. The car crashed after a concert by a bevy of international and local stars at a stadium in the Soweto township outside Johannesburg.
“The family has asked for privacy as they mourn this tragedy,” the Nelson Mandela Foundation said.
The death cast a cloud on the unprecedented rush of excitement in South Africa, which was tormented for years by negative and even domestic pessimism that the world’s most watched sporting event was too big for Africa to handle.
That pessimism has been transformed in recent weeks and South Africans of all races can scarcely contain their pride at being in the world spotlight.
Successfully hosting this tournament for the first time in Africa will mean much more for the hosts than just sport.
Racial reconciliation, the affirmation of an often troubled post-apartheid nation, future investment and millions of tourist dollars could be at stake.
It is also a symbol of Africa’s emergence from decades stereotyped as a continent of disaster, conflict and failure into a dynamic region winning ever-increasing foreign investment.
The once-improbable dream kicks off later on Friday when Mexico face the host nation in Johannesburg’s 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium.
The Mexicans have to contend not only with a frenzy of patriotic fervour but also the ear-splitting din of the vuvuzela trumpets, so loud they can make communication between players and coaches almost impossible.
Once mocked even by their compatriots as hopeless under-achievers, and still one of the lowest-rated World Cup hosts, at 83rd in the rankings, South Africa come off a run of 12 unbeaten matches and are new national idols.
A string of comparatively minor crimes against journalists and three Greek players in recent days have been reminders that security in one of the globe’s most violent countries outside a war zone remains a concern.
Six people were injured in a crowd crush at Cape Town’s main World Cup fan zone on Thursday when thousands of people tried to get in.
The death of Mandela’s great grand-daughter, a day after three British tourists died in a bus crash, highlighted the fact visitors face as much danger on the roads as from crime.
But the biggest distractions for the South African team are the weight of expectation and joyful street parades.
Their Brazilian manager, Carlo Alberto Parreira, said on Thursday they had expected calmness and focus but he could understand the party on the streets.
“I don’t want my players to be affected by all of that,” he said. “Now we have a World Cup game...we want to make this country proud.”
Mexico fully intend to spoil the party.
“My team has come here to play football, not make friends and go sightseeing,” said coach Javier Aguirre.
Mexico’s confidence has been boosted by victory over defending champions Italy last week and good performances against England and the Netherlands in other recent friendlies.
In Friday’s other Group A game, France will be under pressure against Uruguay in Cape Town after a series of unimpressive warm-up games, culminating in a worrying 1-0 defeat by China.
Les Bleus look a far cry from the dominant team that won the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000.
Uruguay, though unfancied, have had an impressive warm-up with wins against Switzerland and Israel and could be a threat to the French.