IN true African fashion, drum-playing, whistle- and vuvuzela-blowing, dancing and singing soccer fanatics painted the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium with rainbow colours when the first games of the Orange Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) were played yesterday.
Despite worries from soccer bosses about poor ticket sales, the double-header attracted a decent crowd of 20979 to the 48000-capacity stadium.
With many in colourful, highly creative and sometimes bizarre costumes, spirits were high as tournament favourites Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo played to an exciting 2-2 draw in the first match. The second game between Mali and Niger at 8pm failed to live up to the standard set by the first. But the stadium came to life when former Barcelona midfielder and Mali captain Seydou Keita scored, giving his side a narrow 1-0 win.
The Mali fans were the loudest of the day, with their drums and their mini orange vuvuzelas. Shakira and Freshly Ground's Waka Waka were popular with the fans who rallied behind their team.
The only visible drama was earlier when an excited DRC supporter managed to get past security guards and sprint across the field when his team fought back from 2-0 down. But he slipped and fell and was taken away by stewards.
There also seemed to have been a hiccup with ticket sales, as several fans complained they had been unable to buy tickets at the Sunridge Spar after having been told tickets were sold out.
Beachwalk Bed & Breakfast manager in Summerstrand Alida Gerryts also told how she had tried unsuccessfully to get tickets for two Swiss guests.
"It was difficult because they are only available at certain Spars. We called Sunridge, but they were closed, and we drove to the stadium and to Bluewater Bay but did not manage to get any."
Afcon local organising committee spokesman Sipho Sithole said he had received reports that tickets were "sold out" but this was not the case and officials were trying to discover the reason for this.
"We suspect that stores may have run out of printing paper for the tickets but we are still trying to get to the bottom of it. "
The excitement started hours before the first game as cars displaying the teams' national flags made their way to the stadium.
Meanwhile, supporters who arrived early ran around the venue in large numbers singing, dancing, beating drums and blowing on vuvuzelas. As the first teams made their way onto the field for a warm-up, the stadium erupted with loud cheers.
After the first game, Ghana supporter Asamoah Jemba, 48, of Johannesburg, who was draped in the national flag, praised the stadium.
"It really is beautiful. I had a great time and the boys played well. If we continue playing like that, we will win the tournament.
"I hope we will play against Bafana Bafana in the quarterfinal so that we'll have a full stadium."
For die-hard DRC fan Ilunga Bakala, 52, of Central, the result was a fair reflection of the game.
"Both teams played well, but everyone thought we would lose – we proved them wrong.
"The game could have gone either way," Bakala said.
"I believe we will do better than everyone thought – watch this space, my brother," an upbeat Bakala added.
Buli Ngomane, general manager of corporate affairs at Access Management which manages the stadium, said the company was happy with the attendance.
"We urge the public to come and join us again on Thursday to support Africa's superstar players at the next Afcon match," Ngomane said.
But the tournament does not appear to have benefited smaller accommodation establishments. Coral Tree Guest House owner Barbara Kinghorn said while there had been a few inquiries, they had not secured many bookings for the duration of the tournament.
"Our big drawcard is that we are in Parsons Hill and within walking distance of the stadium, but we only have one person who is staying here for the week."
Kinghorn said although they had a few early inquiries, none of them had resulted in bookings.
This was in stark contrast to the soccer World Cup in 2010 when they had been inundated with visitors from overseas.
Dennis Byron, owner of Millbury Guest House in Mill Park, said he had not had any inquiries about accommodation for the tournament.
"I have talked to a few others and they are very quiet. Only the hotels are packed – and that is because of the teams," he said.
Beachwalk owner Gerryts – who tried to help the Swiss guests – said she had received one inquiry from a Congolese supporter but she had already been fully booked for the week.
Summerstrand KFC manager Sandie Nanto said the outlet had not been any busier than usual over the weekend.
At Dolphin's Leap, Nando's manager Sizwe Kathamba said the store had not been as busy as staff had expected it to be.