South Africans Enthusiastically Host World Cup

The World Cup gets under way in South Africa on Friday. President Jacob Zuma held a news conference in which he said the benefits of the soccer tournament will stay with the country for many years. This is the first time an African nation has hosted the tournament.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's a historic week in South Africa. The World Cup is coming. When it opens Friday, it will be the first time an African nation has hosted the tournament. South African President Jacob Zuma says the soccer extravaganza will benefit his country long after the month-long competition is over. Vicky O'Hara reports from Johannesburg.

VICKY O'HARA: South Africa has spent billions on infrastructure and security in anticipation of being the first African nation to host soccer's biggest international event. The number of foreign visitors for the event has not quite met expectations. Nonetheless, President Jacob Zuma says the tournament has helped his country economically and helped to heal racial divisions.

President JACOB ZUMA (South Africa): Leading up to the tournament, we have seen something that I've never seen, how enthusiastic everyone has been. All we're left with is to carry this forward as the country. And I don't think we'll ever leave the moment.

O'HARA: Zuma says the country plans to use the World Cup to build up soccer among South African youth, something that inspires, motivates and teaches discipline. With that in mind, the U.S. National Soccer team invited 350 South African children to its practice yesterday in Pretoria. Many of the children are orphans or somehow affected by the country's high rate of HIV/AIDS.

The children were dressed in red jerseys emblazoned with U.S. and South African flags. Their enthusiasm expressed via the vuvuzela - that's the South African trumpet - was irrepressible.

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O'HARA: U.S. Ambassador Donald Gips was there to welcome the children.

Ambassador DONALD GIPS (U.S. Ambassador to South Africa): Did you guys have fun?

Unidentified Group: Yes.

Amb. GIPS: Did you blow your vuvuzelas?

Unidentified Group: Yes.

O'HARA: The ambassador says the 2010 World Cup could be a watershed for South Africa.

Amb. GIPS: You know, people are so proud of what they've achieved here, both the facilities and the execution. And you can feel it in the streets as you drive around and see the flags waving. And I think the South African team is going to surprise everyone with their performance here in the cup. And everyone will be cheering and blowing their vuvuzelas for them.

O'HARA: When the practice was over, the children were invited onto the field to meet their favorite players. The U.S. team signed photographs and the children's red jerseys. A lot of the young guests were intimidated. Others seized the moment.

Unidentified Child #1: I've been having so much fun. I'm just ready to see (unintelligible).

Unidentified Child #2: (unintelligible).

Unidentified Child #1: I don't know. I just love him.

O'HARA: Some of the children admitted they didn't know who it was who had signed their jerseys, but said they'd had a great time, anyway. Today, the U.S. team retires from the spotlight to prepare for its all-important opening match against England on Saturday.

For NPR News, I'm Vicky O'Hara in Johannesburg.

AMOS: On Facebook this morning, we asked soccer fans for their memories of past World Cups.

Shawn Michael Kaplan(ph) remembered 2006, when he was inside the airport in Chicago. He writes: watched Italy beat France on penalty shootout in O'Hare airport as my flight was boarding, then sprinted to my gate, and as the last to board a rather rowdy flight Venice, Italy.

INSKEEP: Roxanna Tan(ph) watched a World Cup game in a seedy bar in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, where she says she drank her first beer.

And Bruna Payne(ph) says that this year, she'll be in Danbury, Connecticut where, quote, "You'll find the most Brazilians other than in Brazil supporting the best team, Brazil," in her opinion, which she spells Brrrrrrrraaaiiiiiiiiiiiiil!!!!!!!!- that's 8 r's, 3 a's, 13 i's and 8 exclamation points.

AMOS: To share your favorite World Cup moments, visit MORNING EDITION's Facebook page at Facebook.com/nprmorningedition.

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AMOS: It's NPR News.

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