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South Africa's Long Road to 2010 World Cup Seen As Boosting Reconciliation

The road to the first football (soccer) World Cup in Africa has been long for host South Africa, filled with frustrations and challenges. For the country's 45 million people, it is widely seen as an important step in nation building after years of oppression and inequality.

Six years ago, South Africa won its bid to become the first African nation to host a football World Cup.

"The 2010 World Cup will be organized in South Africa," said the head of football's governing body, FIFA's Sepp Blatter, who made the announcement in Zurich.

The country's first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, campaigned hard for the prestigious tournament because he saw it as a way to further reconciliation after decades of racial separation and conflict.

The head of the South African Organizing Committee, Danny Jordaan, a former football player and anti-apartheid activist, was there from the start.

"After 1990, when Mandela walked out of that prison, we saw it as a beginning of the creation of a new South Africa," he said. "After the elections of 1994, we then had to deal with building a new democratic, non-sexist South Africa."

Jordaan and other officials met during the 1994 World Cup in the United States and decided to bid on hosting the next available World Cup, in 2006.

South Africa lost this first bid to Germany by one vote, but Jordaan says that only strengthened the team's resolve.

"It is been a tough journey, first, just to convince people that we should be regarded as serious candidates. It is only after, and ironically, when we lost to Germany 12 to 11 [votes], that the world started sitting back and saying, 'South Africa is a worthy cause,'" Jordaan said.

After winning its bid to host the 2010 tournament, the South African government launched a massive effort to build the needed infrastructure.

It invested billions of dollars in stadiums, transportation hubs, security and communications.

But along the way organizers constantly faced those who doubted South Africa's ability to organize the tournament, complete the stadiums and transportation links on time and provide adequate security for thousands of foreign fans.

But their confidence never wavered as Blatter remarked during the team draw in Cape Town six months ago. "You are ready. I am ready. Africa is ready. South Africa is ready," Blatter said.

Jordaan says despite the challenges and frustrations the effort has been worth it, given the history of apartheid.

"We are a nation that comes from divided past, a past of conflict, almost of war. And so the building of new single non-racial South Africa is a critical part of sustainable economic growth," he states, "Of deepening and strengthening democracy in our country."

He says the World Cup, like other major sporting events, has helped foster reconciliation. "This World Cup is beginning to plant the seeds, serving as a glue to bind the nation," he added. "And nation building, social cohesion, is an important outcome for us in this World Cup. And we are quite happy with what we have seen thus far."

The World Cup will also leave a legacy of new infrastructure to buoy economic expansion in the future, football clubs in impoverished communities and world-class stadiums across the country.

And it leaves a sense of accomplishment among a people who never faltered in their belief that Africa deserved a place on the world stage.