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FORMER president Nelson Mandela gave the World Cup the ultimate pre-tournament boost yesterday when his family declared he would be among the crowds when the event kicks off.
As the country put the finishing touches to preparations, rolling out the continent's first high-speed rail link and unveiling plans to bus fans from stadium to stadium, the announcement about Mandela removed one of the biggest worries for organisers who are desperate for him to attend.
Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, who acts as the family's spokesperson, had previously said his grandfather was too frail to make such an appearance.
But he said yesterday that Mandela would in fact attend the opener on Friday at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium, albeit only briefly.
Sello Hating, a spokesperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, confirmed that "Mr Mandela has expressed an interest to attend the game" although he said he would only make a final decision on the day.
President Jacob Zuma had said on Sunday that he hoped Mandela would be present when South Africa take on Mexico but said there were no guarantees.
"If he does not appear, we would understand. If he is there, it will be a bonus for this tournament. We wish he would be there," said Zuma.
Mandela's lobbying was seen as the deciding factor six years ago when Fifa handed South Africa the right to stage the tournament for the first time on African soil.
Since then, it has faced almost endless accusations that it is no place to host the world's biggest sporting event because it is either too crime-ridden or lacking in infrastructure.
It went at least some way towards silencing that criticism yesterday by opening the Gautrain, a rail link which can whisk passengers from OR Tambo International Airport into Sandton.
The 160kmh link will be one of the key legacies of the tournament and is intended to show that Africa can build transport facilities to rival those of anywhere in the world.
Security guards outnumbered passengers on the first day, reflecting the desire by authorities to deflect fears that a country with one of the world's highest crime rates is no place to stage the world's biggest sporting event.
And while traffic snarl-ups mean the journey usually takes around an hour, the Gautrain will cover the distance in around a quarter of that time.
Strike actions and subsidence problems have ensured that only the link to Sandton has opened in time for the World Cup.
Janet Gallagher, who lives near the airport but often travels to Sandton, was one of the first passengers.
"In the morning at rush hour, it can take up to two hours. You can't compare ... It was so fast," she said.
As well as the Gautrain opening, a new train station opened in Cape Town and the government announced plans for a special bus service to ferry spectators between host cities, dropping them off close to the stadium before every match.
"This service will be provided by a fleet of 110 newly acquired 79-seater buses, operating alongside about 300 minibuses from the taxi industry," Transport Minister Sibusiso Nbebele said.
Authorities in Johannesburg were also sealing off roads in the downtown area where a giant fan park will play host to thousands of soccer fans unable to hunt down a ticket for Friday's opening. - Sapa-AFP