South Africa wraps itself in national colours as World Cup nears

JOHANNESBURG, May 27, 2010 (AFP) - Josiah Motswaledi turned up at South Africa's new Soccer City stadium in a Bafana Bafana jersey, wearing a clown wig in national colours, giant yellow glasses, and blowing a vuvuzela trumpet.

Less than three weeks before the June 11 kick-off, his enthusiasm -- and even his outfit -- is filling South Africa's streets.

"It's awesome," the 29-year-old said as he arrived for the first match last weekend at the stadium that will host the opening and final matches. "It's an honour for me to be here. I feel excited for it."

In main cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, kitted-out street vendors hawk national flags for the participating teams in every imaginable size, sparking a fad for elastic versions that snap over sideview mirrors.

The government has unfurled flags across highways, and ordinary shopkeepers have draped them over bars and restaurants, as well as gas stations and hardware stores.

Every Friday, more and more people are joining a campaign to wear football jerseys, turning the sidewalks into a sea of green and yellow supporting the Bafana Bafana national side.

Lower-than-expected ticket sales overseas means FIFA has made available more tickets to South Africans, who will fill about 60 percent of the stadium seats.

But FIFA's regulations will strip away some of the "African-ness" of the game, or at least the way it's celebrated in South Africa.

At a typical South African football match, fans are greeted by a small city of vendors selling foods like chicken's feet, sheep's head, sausage and stew.

Fans enter the stadium to the deafening roar of vuvuzelas, the long plastic trumpets that generate more decibels than an air-horn, and join an improvised festival fuelled by drinks passed around in plastic bottles.

World Cup games will be a more sanitised experience, as FIFA allows only its commercial partners within 800 metres (half mile) of stadiums and official fan parks.

-- Fans won't know how a sheep head is served --

That means the concourses will most likely dish out fast food, soft drinks and internationally known beers.

At the inaugural match in Soccer City on Saturday -- a trial run for implementing the FIFA regulations -- hungry fans searched in vain for food as they stood outside the stadium downing beverages that gate-keepers would not allow them to bring inside.

Amos Ndlovu, who has sold meats outside Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium for 14 years, said last month he worries fans will miss out on local flavour.

"This is a uniquely South African experience. We were looking forward to sharing it with foreign fans who have no idea how a sheep head is served," he told AFP.

FIFA has decided to allow the vuvuzela to stay, despite protest over the noise from some European players and broadcasters.

And local officials say vendors will be accommodated at the fan parks, where people without tickets can watch the games on big-screen televisions.

After complaints from local musicians, FIFA has added more South African talent to join the stage with Shakira and the Black Eyed Peas at the kick-off concert on June 10.

Initially ticket sales -- restricted to online orders and certain bank branches -- were disappointing in South Africa. But last month FIFA opened ticket kiosks and saw huge lines of people waiting for tickets.

"Believe it or not, 2010 is here," Motswaledi said. "We are ready."

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