Pretoria ready to embrace soccer and its fans

By Kate Holton and Sonia Oxley

PRETORIA (Reuters) - Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa and better known for its love of rugby union, put the final touches in place on Tuesday before the arrival of thousands of soccer fans.

Cars, buildings, hotels and offices around the small city were covered in South African flags and the banners of the 32 teams competing in the World Cup which starts on Friday.

Local fans gathering in bright sunshine in the Church Square in the center of the city said Pretoria would turn its attention from rugby for one month and unite behind the national team.

"This is so special because it is the first World Cup in Africa and we're so excited to welcome people here," 25-year-old Solly told Reuters from his seat selling photographs, including a large portrait of former President Nelson Mandela.

"We want people to get a good image of Africa. Rugby is a big sport in Pretoria but we've also got two big soccer teams and everyone will support the national team. I will watch it on a big screen in the square so I can still work."

Fans arriving at the nearby O.R. Tambo airport have been met by the sound of the loud vuvuzela trumpets while talk in the local bars and streets was dominated by the soccer tournament.

Bars in the student area of Hatfield were selling cocktails designed for each country and offering the chance to collect bracelets with each drink.

Talk show hosts on the local radio argued over how many days were actually left to go before the tournament started.

"People keep saying it is three days to the start of the tournament, but today is Tuesday and Friday does not count because it is day zero, so actually it is only two days," one presenter told her audience. "We're almost there."

Many cars display the flag of South Africa and that of another country competing, such as England and Brazil, either from their window or wrapped around the back of the wing mirror and on the petrol cap.

Christo Delange, from Cape Town but visiting Pretoria, said the country would come to a standstill on Friday.

"People will work in the morning but then everything will stop for the opening ceremony," he said.

"It will be great for the country and will show the world we are ready to host these big events. We did a good job in 1995 with the Rugby World Cup and we will do it again."

Some tourists have arrived in Pretoria, which will host six World Cup games, but workers in the hotels and bars said they expected the majority to arrive after Friday.

They are likely to gather around Church Square and the Union Buildings, the location of Mandela's inauguration in 1994.

Walter Ulloa, 45, from Mexico was drinking coffee in a bar off the main square with three friends.

"The people have been very welcoming and kind," he said. "People keep telling us to be safe, that there is a high crime rate, but the only problem we've had is the locals who stop us to say that Mexico will lose," he said of the opening game between the host country and Mexico.

"So I just tell them that they're wrong, and so far there's been no problem," he said from under his "Vive Mexico" hat.

(Editing by Michael Holden; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)