JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Mexico deprived hosts South Africa of a dream start to the first World Cup on African soil, equalizing late in a thrilling 1-1 draw at Soccer City to frustrate tens of thousands of vuvuzela trumpet-blowing fans.
After such an entertaining start to the 64-match tournament, France and Uruguay disappointed with a drab goalless draw that failed to do justice to Cape Town’s magnificent new Green Point stadium backed by Table Mountain.
The day really belonged to South Africa’s lowly-ranked Bafana Bafana (The Boys), who did not crumble under the weight of public expectation and euphoria but produced a performance worthy of the opening game of Africa’s first World Cup.
Siphiwe Tshabalala’s glorious 55th-minute shot sent most of the 84,000 crowd into ecstasy at Soccer City near Soweto township, a center of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Mexico, who dominated the first half but faded in the second, struck back late through Rafael Marquez after 79 minutes when Bafana Bafana’s offside trap went disastrously wrong.
South Africa hit the post just before the whistle.
The credible debut — from a team even many South Africans had written off until a sudden boost in form in recent months — eased sadness at Nelson Mandela’s absence from the occasion.
His great-granddaughter, Zenani, died in a car crash on the way home from a pre-World Cup concert, forcing the beloved 91-year-old father of post-apartheid South Africa to cancel his attendance and go into mourning.
Zenani, 13, was one of the nine great-grandchildren of Mandela, whose charisma and prestige is credited with helping South Africa win the World Cup bid in 2004.
Hundreds of thousands of South Africans crammed bars, homes and special fan parks for Friday’s match in a show of national joy likely to accelerate unity in a nation still riven by race and wealth divides 16 years after apartheid ended.
“The rainbow nation has gathered together,” teacher Disebo, 36, said among fans in the city of Bloemfontein.
Ear-splitting vuvuzela trumpets blasted and flags flew across the nation, with most public gatherings passing off peacefully. Three people were hurt in a crush at a fan park viewing of the opening match in Johannesburg.
Organizers, though, were thrilled with the first day.
“It is just fantastic that the first goal of Africa’s first World Cup went to South Africa, we really couldn’t have written a better script,” local World Cup chief Danny Jordaan said.
With no team outside Europe and South America ever having won a World Cup, Spain are the bookies’ favorite, while Brazil are the fans’ choice according to a new poll.
Against Uruguay, France looked a far cry from the imperious team that won the World Cup on home turf in 1998.
Tormented for years by pessimism that the world’s most watched sporting event might be too big for Africa to handle, South Africans could scarcely contain their pride at being in the world spotlight for such positive reasons.
“We have been waiting for years for this moment, praying that it would happen,” said local fan Nicolas Sello, 54. He came to Soccer City at dawn a full 10 hours before kickoff wearing a specially-tailored shirt resembling the national flag.
At a glittering pre-match opening ceremony, jets roared overhead and hundreds of performers showed off local music and dance in the stadium shaped like a calabash or local cooking pot. A giant model dung beetle rolled a ball across the turf.
South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu, who has said the World Cup will have as big an impact for blacks as the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, danced ecstatically wearing the scarf of Bafana Bafana (The Boys).
“The time for Africa has arrived,” President Jacob Zuma told the crowd. He passed on a message from the mourning Mandela: “The game must start, you must enjoy the game.”
Inside and outside the stadium, there was an electric atmosphere as Mexican fans dressed as mariachi singers in wide-brimmed hats joked with their South African rivals.
While Obama was not there, his vice-president Joe Biden did make the trip to the envy of his boss. “The president is angry,” said Biden, whose boss is at home handling the BP spill.
One man ruing his absence was the head of Rwanda’s football federation — he was ordered home and arrested for trying to attend the World Cup without permission from military superiors.
“That is insubordination,” an army spokesman said of errant Brigadier General Jean Bosco Kazura.
Ahead of Saturday’s match against England, the United States had an amusing reminder of their exotic surroundings when an elephant blocked the team bus — for the second time.
(Additional reporting by Reuters World Cup team)
Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Barry Moody