By Barry Moody
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - After years of doubt, soul searching and criticism, South Africa stands on the threshold of a unique World Cup that looks likely to confound the pessimists.
This country has had to endure acres of negative foreign news reports and plenty of self doubt in the six years since it won the right to host Africa's first World Cup.
With less than a month to kick-off, most of those reports are discredited and although there are still plenty of areas of concern to test the nerves of organizers, ranging from violent crime to transport, the omens look good.
For years media reported that FIFA had a "Plan B" to move the tournament if South Africa failed to be ready in time.
Instead, Africa's biggest economy has done better than many nations preparing for either the World Cup or Olympics.
The 10 stadiums were ready early and six of them -- five built from scratch and one extensively expanded and rebuilt -- are magnificent arenas standing comparison with any in the world.
From Johannesburg's 90,000-capacity Soccer City, Africa's biggest stadium, to Durban's arch-spanned arena and Cape Town's bath-shaped bowl -- both fronting the ocean -- the soccer fields are more than sports venues.
The grandiose projects affirm the confidence and ability of an often troubled country 16 years after the end of apartheid.
This event, more than in almost any other country, has huge symbolic importance for a nation torn by racial conflict for centuries which hopes the World Cup will unite still wary blacks and whites in patriotic fervor.
Hosting the world's most-watched sporting event also has the potential to give an enormous boost to South Africa's image and its ability to attract investment and millions of extra tourists to a country blessed with myriad attractions.
Danny Jordaan, boss of the local organizing committee, says that after years of dire predictions that Africa would fail, the world will be "spellbound" on June 11.
The tournament would be a defining moment comparable to the end of apartheid. It would mark "the pinnacle of the strides we have made over the last 16 years and will chart a new course in our country's history," he told Reuters.
President Jacob Zuma said the World Cup "is the single greatest opportunity we have ever had to showcase our diversity and potential to the world. We must rise and tell the story of a continent which is alive with possibilities."
None of this means success is a foregone conclusion, and a big failure under the international spotlight could do deep damage to future tourism and investment.
One of the biggest worries has been South Africa's notorious crime -- it has 50 murders a day -- which has undoubtedly deterred some European fans, although the cost of this long-haul tournament during a world recession has probably put off more.
Estimates of foreign visitor numbers have recently dropped from 450,000 to 370,000 or fewer.
The murder of white supremacist Eugene Terre'blanche by two black farm workers fueled more alarmist reporting topped by the British tabloid Daily Star's bizarre assertion that machete-wielding gangs were roaming the streets.
Officials from Zuma and Jordaan down have recited a well-rehearsed mantra that South Africa has a long history of successfully hosting almost 150 international events and will create a cocoon for the fans with a $174-million security plan including 41,000 specially deployed police.
Most experts believe this is likely to work, unless fans stray from well-guarded areas into some of the frighteningly dangerous quarters of Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria. They also believe terrorism is unlikely, although it cannot entirely be discounted.
The drop in likely foreign visitors has deflated a long-running cause of concern -- lack of accommodation capacity -- but there are still worries that fans will not find enough transport to get between matches, particularly by road.
If the tournament is likely to be a big boost for South Africa, it is unlikely to do the same favor for FIFA's image in this country, damaged by what are seen as heavy-handed actions to enforce strict rights protection for its commercial partners and mistakes on ticketing.
FIFA has acknowledged its error in long ignoring advice that the internet sales system for tickets was unsuitable for Africa, where many fans do not have access to computers.
Over-the-counter sales were belatedly introduced a month ago, causing both a rush for seats and the long-hoped-for jump in excitement among fans. Some 200,000 of the 2.7 million tickets remained unsold at the last count and there are likely to be far fewer fans from other parts of Africa than once hoped.
Perhaps the biggest question over the World Cup will have to be answered after the final on July 11 -- was it worth spending more than $5 billion to stage it in a country which still has an army of poor and some of the biggest wealth disparities in the world?
Many domestic critics say no, including township dwellers involved in a series of violent protests recently against the delay in spreading the benefits of black rule more widely.
However, World Cup supporters say the tournament will not only boost foreign investment but leave a lasting legacy of roads and major infrastructure, while Jordaan passionately argues that Africa must not be deprived of its favorite sport.
"Football is a giver of hope and life and we must never argue that we must deny Africans the fundamental pleasure and joy that football generates...football is the one expression where Africans can compete equally with anyone in the world."
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)