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Local fans unite to support African teams

By Opheera McDoom

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Hopes of an African winner at the continent's first ever World Cup have taken a knock after a set of disappointing early results but any failure cannot be blamed on a lack of vociferous support.

Six African teams are competing in Africa's first World Cup finals and many fans from the mostly West African teams could not afford to travel or buy tickets to support their players.

However South Africans, who comprise the bulk of the supporters at the 64 matches, are compensating for their absence, cheering every African team in support of their continent.

In sleepy Polokwane, the most northern venue where World Cup fever has yet to fire up, police sirens blared for 15 minutes in the streets of the tiny town after Ghana triumphed in their first match.

The dozens of police cars were not chasing rioting fans but celebrating the victory, the first, and so far, only win secured by an African side at the competition.

"It felt like we were playing in Ghana," said Ghanaian midfielder Dede Adew. "We had that feeling that the people were behind us, they wanted us to succeed and we are going to try to make them proud," he said.

Even the traditional Arab north-African and sub-Saharan divide which so often dominates policy at African Union summits was forgotten when Algeria took on Slovenia in Polokwane.

Vuvuzelas boomed throughout the stadium as South Africans cheered on the only Arab team and shared their anguish at their loss.

With South Africa's chances fading after their 3-0 defeat to Uruguay on Wednesday, local fans are switching their allegiances to other African teams.

"We don't care which one -- we want any African team to win the World Cup," said South African fan Ali Chauke who is backing Ghana.

"They say football unites a nation -- here it is uniting a continent," said Nigerian fan Ugonoma Ezulike. "We are supporting South Africa and they say they are praying for us."

Most fans said either Ghana or Ivory Coast would be the most likely teams to realize the African dream.

But, of course, some grudges just run too deep.

African champions Egypt lost out on both hosting the prestigious tournament to South Africa and a place in the finals to Algeria in a play-off match marred by violence which triggered a diplomatic crisis between the two Arab nations.

At Algeria's opening match, their fans managed to find a couple of Egyptians waving their flags and a fist fight broke out in the stands.

(Editing by Jon Bramley and Michael Holden)