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South Africa waves the 'Mandela Magic' wand

As the World Cup opening game nears, Mexico is healthy and Bafana Bafana and their fans are amped. Adding to the excitement: South Africa's former president plans a drop-in.

June 09, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from Johannesburg -- Forget South Africa's talented midfielder Steven Pienaar, hulking defender Matthew Booth or strapping goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune.

The man who may give Mexico the most trouble in Friday's World Cup opener is a frail 91-year-old great-grandfather.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela is expected to make a brief appearance at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium, where he will greet players and fans before South Africa and Mexico kick off the first World Cup to be played on African soil. And that could be bad news for Mexico because when Mandela is in the stadium, South Africans swear that strange things happen.

"We call it Mandela Magic," says Trevor Bongani, a young soccer fan from Johannesburg. "I don't know how it happens. That man is different."

The upstart South Africans may need magic against Mexico, which says this summer's World Cup team is the best in its distinguished soccer history. El Tri had a longer training camp — two months — and played more warmup games, 12, than any of the other 31 World Cup entrants.

Yet Mexico — whose president, Felipe Calderon, will be on hand Friday — appears to just be hitting its stride under Coach Javier Aguirre. It beat defending World Cup champion Italy last week in its last friendly.

And for the first time this year, the team appears completely healthy, meaning former World Cup captain Rafael Marquez and World Cup veteran striker Guillermo Franco are likely to start, and forward Javier Hernandez and midfielder Andres Guardado are not.

South Africa appears to be peaking at the right time, too, having gone 12 matches without a loss. Plus the Bafana Bafana (the team's nickname comes from the Nguni word for "the boys") will be playing before a country that has suddenly gone mad over soccer and in a stadium sure to be packed with 90,000 vuvuzela-tooting South African fans. According to tournament organizers, about 250,000 came out to cheer the team at a midday parade Wednesday that shut down part of Johannesburg.

Mexico should be the one "worried about playing us at home in front of our vibrant crowd," Khune told reporters.

Both teams come into the tournament burdened with enormous expectations. In two previous World Cups, South Africa failed to advance beyond group play. A similar performance here would make it the only host country in history not to advance beyond the first round.

Mexico, on the other hand, has promised its fans an appearance in the tournament quarterfinals, a level it hasn't reached since 1986. With Uruguay and France looming later in group play, neither Mexico nor South Africa is likely to achieve its goal if it loses on Friday.

"It's the opening game. It's something very special for us," Mexico defender Carlos Salcido said. "We have to start out on the right foot."

Franco agreed, saying the biggest challenge for both teams will be ignoring all the World Cup hoopla and concentrating on the game. "We have to focus on … the things that we've been doing and not get distracted by the parties that are going on outside the stadium."

Having said that, Franco admitted he and his teammates would be living a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Friday.

"We're very aware of thousands and millions of people who are going to be watching and the important personalities who are going to be there, like Nelson Mandela," he said.

"These are people who made history. People who, with their work, did so much for society. For us, it's simply a blessing to be able to open the door to an event as important as the World Cup."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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