FIFA president still hopes Mandela opens World Cup

ZURICH (AP) — FIFA president Sepp Blatter is hopeful that Nelson Mandela will be healthy enough to open the World Cup in South Africa.

The former South African president, the anti-Apartheid campaigner and Nobel Prize winner who is now 91, made his last public appearance to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his release from prison on Feb. 11.

"We cross fingers that Nelson Mandela ... can realize this dream. And his dream would be to be at the opening of the World Cup. For the time being, he is doing well and we hope that he can do it," Blatter said Friday at his last regular news conference before the tournament starts June 11 in Johannesburg.

The FIFA president, who faced questions about South Africa's readiness to host the tournament, said he was confident the event would be a success and predicted that more than 95 percent of tickets will be sold.

Blatter brushed off suggestions that as a developing country South Africa was a bad choice to host the World Cup, saying the African continent deserved to host the event because of all that it has given world soccer.

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, who is responsible for overseeing the tournament, said South Africa was so well prepared it could start it "tomorrow."

None of the 300,000 remaining tickets will be given away, said Valcke, adding that sales over the past eight days indicated all remaining seats will be sold before the first match.

But he acknowledged that "we have to work on our ticketing" after initial sales were sluggish and organizers were forced to cut prices to encourage South Africans to attend.

Valcke also said FIFA was pleased that many airlines had scheduled additional flights to bring the 360,000 spectators expected to make their way to South Africa.

Blatter said the South African team could bring together the country's different ethnic groups, especially if the home squad reaches the semifinals.

Asked about the risk of the World Cup being disrupted by unforeseen events such as last week's volcano eruption in Iceland, which grounded most European airlines, Blatter said even FIFA is "absolutely without any weapons against that," despite the $1 billion reserve for emergencies.