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World Cup kicks off in African celebration

By Gordon Bell

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Fighter jets sped low over Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium briefly drowning out the constant din of tens of thousands of vuvuzela trumpets as South Africa opened the 2010 soccer World Cup with a celebration of African culture.

The stadium, resembling a massive African cooking pot, erupted in cheers as performers took to the field to mark the first time that sports' most watched tournament has been staged on the continent.

Reported traffic problems, though, delayed some fans, leading to the ceremony kicking off to many empty seats.

South African President Jacob Zuma declared the tournament open and FIFA President Sepp Blatter hailed it as the African cup.

"The FIFA World Cup is in Africa! The FIFA World Cup is in South Africa!" Blatter said to loud applause. "A dream has come true."

A giant dung beetle rolled a ball across the arena as Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu danced in the stands and 1,500 performers jived to African music.

Boards displayed the colors of the 32 competing teams and banners pointed to the 9 host cities while drummers beat a constant rhythm.

But one of the loudest cheers was reserved for Nelson Mandela, whose image appeared on screens to a message of hope from him in song.

"The generosity of the human spirit can overcome all adversity. Through compassion and caring, we create ... hope."

The former South African president, who led the country out of apartheid in 1994 and whose global stature helped win the country the right to host the World Cup, canceled an appearance at the ceremony after the death of his great grand-daughter overnight.

Blatter said the spirit of Mandela was with the crowd in the stadium, and Zuma passed on a message from the 91-year-old icon.

"The game must start, you must enjoy the game," Zuma said Mandela had told him.

About 70,000 people, a sea of green and gold, South Africa's national team colors, listened to songs from the six African nations in the tournament -- South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Algeria -- and Grammy award winner R. Kelly's anthem "Sign of a Victory."

Pockets of Mexican fans waved banners and flags, many adding to the overwhelming noise made by vuvuzelas, the loud plastic trumpet that has quickly become a symbol of this World Cup.

South Africans have embraced the tournament in a swell of national pride not seen since Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and the first all-race election four years later.

(Editing by Jon Bramley)