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Jordaan recalls personal journey to World Cup

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Danny Jordaan once was an anti-apartheid activist campaigning to keep South Africa out of international sports. Today he is in charge of preparing his country to be the first on the continent to host the premier tournament of the world’s most popular sport.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, some 100 days before soccer’s World Cup kickoff, Jordaan marveled at how far he and his nation have journeyed.

“I am a person who could not vote in this country. I had no right to represent this country because of the policies of this country,” he said. “South Africa was isolated because of those policies. And now South Africa is a host and inviting the whole world to come here.”

Sports, race and politics are intertwined in South Africa, where rugby and cricket are seen as the sports of whites, and soccer is embraced by the black majority.

In the 1970s, Jordaan participated in campaigns for South Africa to be expelled from international sports federations including FIFA, football’s worldwide governing body. Many believe the isolation in a sports-mad country helped turn white public opinion against apartheid.

Apartheid ended in 1994, and a year later South Africa celebrated its return to international sports by hosting and winning the rugby World Cup, highlighted in the recent film “Invictus.”

That tournament is remembered as an important step toward racial reconciliation because of the moment Nelson Mandela walked onto the field wearing the national team’s shirt to congratulate the victorious, mostly white South African team.

Jordaan said that once apartheid had ended, he saw hosting an event like soccer’s World Cup as a chance to bring the country together in pursuit of a common, ambitious goal.

South Africa narrowly lost a bid to host the 2006 World Cup. It tried again and in 2004 won the right to host the 2010 tournament, with a bid championed by Nelson Mandela.

Thanks to the infrastructure built or speeded up for the World Cup, South Africa will be able to attract more tourists, more high-profile events and more investment, Jordaan said.

But “the creation of a single nation is as important as any financial reward.”

Jordaan, whose resume includes cricket and soccer player, sports administrator and member of parliament as well as anti-apartheid activist, spoke in an office crammed with sports memorabilia in the shadow of Soccer City, the main World Cup stadium. The rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers sounded as workers put the finishing touches on the stadium.

Jordaan said he was confident the country would be ready by June 11, when the World Cup opens. The stadiums are complete and some already have hosted games, and most of the infrastructure is in place, he said.

“There are still things that we have to fine tune,” he said, citing mass transportation in the 10 host cities and landscaping at the 11 stadiums.

Jordaan and other organizers have had to answer repeated questions about whether South Africa — an impoverished country with a high crime rate — was capable of hosting a World Cup. Tuesday, he said that those who still doubted were ignorant.

“Clearly it’s a mistake to think it’s a mistake to host the World Cup in South Africa,” he said. “There’s a huge gap between the perceptions of some people and the reality of our country.”

He said South Africa has hosted scores of major international events, including last year’s World Cup curtain raiser, the Confederations Cup, during which visitors were largely safe from crime.

Some observers worry that South Africa’s reputation and the global recession will keep World Cup visitors away. Jordaan said 2 million of 2.9 million tickets have been sold, and that he expected the tournament to be sold out. He was more concerned about enough flights being available for ticket holders, an issue he said was being addressed.

“We are a people that can … deliver an event that only 19 countries over 103 years have delivered.”

© 2010 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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