THE first of four teams to be based in Nelson Mandela Bay for the Orange Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) arrived in the city late last night, much to the delight of a young soccer fan who happened to be at the Port Elizabeth Airport at the same time.
The Mali soccer team, also known as The Eagles, slipped in quietly and without much fanfare and were welcomed by Local Organising Committee (LOC) members and Mali sports ministry officials after 9pm.
Mali will face Niger on Sunday, January 20, at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in North End, Port Elizabeth.
Captain Seydou Keita, a former FC Barcelona player, said the focus for now was on "preparation for the match next Sunday. We have 10 days to be ready to play against Niger".
Coach Patrice Carteron said the team's motivation was to qualify for the quarterfinals. "I respect Niger, Ghana and Congo and the other teams but we are here to win," he said.
Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality sports and recreation portfolio chairwoman Babalwa Lobishe said she was excited the team had "finally" arrived.
"We have decided to keep their arrival quiet because they came so late and they attended a press conference in Johannesburg," Lobishe said.
But despite the quiet arrival, there was one unsuspecting soccer fan who got to meet one of his sporting idols.
Grey Junior pupil Grant Hutton, 10, and his family were waiting for his brother to arrive when the team jetted in.
"I recognised Keita from when he played for Barcelona. I wish them all the best during the match," Grant said.
Meanwhile, soccer fans who buy a ticket to attend any of the eight matches played at the African Cup of Nations in Nelson Mandela Bay will qualify for free transport to and from matches on specially designated buses and taxis
Plans to boost attendance during the continental showpiece tournament were announced by Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture MEC Xoliswa Tom. It is hoped the scheme will encourage fans to buy tickets and pack out the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on match days.
"We have contracts in place with the Algoa Bus Company, the taxi industry and the Integrated Transport System buses will also be used to ferry supporters to and from the stadium."
Afcon officials have admitted ticket sales in Port Elizabeth have been sluggish and they are hoping sales will pick up dramatically in the next week.
Afcon LOC communications head Sipho Sithole said only 31052 tickets had been sold so far for the eight games to be hosted at the 48000-seater Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Ghana are expected to jet into Port Elizabeth next Thursday, boosting sales.
PE's Afcon fixtures:
January 20: Ghana v DR Congo 5pm, Mali v Niger 8pm.
January 24: Ghana v Mali 5pm, Niger v DR Congo 8pm.
January 27: Cape Verde Islands v Angola.
January 28: Niger v Ghana
February 2: winner Group B v runner-up Group A 5pm.
February 9: Third place play-off 8pm.