PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — President Jacob Zuma on Sunday declared South Africa ready for the start of the World Cup and praised the world's most popular sporting event for bringing cohesion to his once divided nation.

Five days from the kickoff, Zuma said South Africa has not witnessed such enthusiasm and excitement since former president Nelson Mandela was released from an apartheid-era prison in 1990.

Zuma spoke to reporters at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria with FIFA president Sepp Blatter at his side.

Zuma noted how South African flags are festooning office towers, homes, stores and cars across the country. He applauded the eruption of national pride, saying it was a priceless benefit of the tournament.

Zuma also criticized those who doubted the nation's ability to host the first World Cup on the African continent. South Africa was chosen in 2004 as host of this year's tournament, which begins Friday with Bafana Bafana playing Mexico.

"We knew from that moment that South Africa would never be the same. It is clear that millions of our people have waited for years and look upon this tournament with hope, pride and a sense of belonging," he said.

Blatter said he met with Mandela last week and the frail 91-year-old icon expressed his wish to be present at the opening and closing ceremonies.

"Anyway, his spirit will be present," Blatter said.

Zuma said sport has united all South Africans. In the run-up to the soccer tournament, a top rugby final was played in the Johannesburg area of Soweto for the first time — to a rapturous welcome in the township.

"We have seen things we have never seen before. Flags everywhere emphasize the cohesion we have been left with," he said.

Zuma said after the final whistle of the World Cup on July 11, South Africa would benefit from improved infrastructure and facilities, as well as an internationally backed continent-wide project known as the 1Goal Education Campaign. The campaign aims to put 72 million African children into school for the first time.

"It will be one of the most lasting legacies of the 2010 World Cup," he said.

Another campaign known as "Football for Hope" plans to set up 20 combined soccer, education and public health centers across the continent.

"Bringing the World Cup to South Africa is to trust South Africa, to trust Africa and to say: You are strong and you can do it," he said.

Zuma said Brazil president Lula da Silva is scheduled to pay a state visit on the eve of the final game. Brazil, a five-time World Cup winner, is favored in this tournament.