Cape Town: South African President Thabo Mbeki on Saturday opened the 2003 World Cup in front of a 25,000 crowd packed inside the famous Newlands ground and an estimated worldwide television audience of 1.4 billion people. "This eighth World Cup is the biggest ever. Together we will make it the best ever," promised Mbeki. "I assure you Africa will live up to expectations of players and cricket enthusiasts from around the world. This tournament is about peace, it is about strengthening friendship. "You players have come to us as messengers of peace, not war. You come as representatives of the movement of friendship. You come to us regardless of colour, race or creed. "I have great pleasure in officially declaring the eighth World Cup open. Let the games begin." Sports stars from the three hosting countries - South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya - had paraded around the stadium before the 14 competing nations, in the six week event being held here as well and in Zimbabwe and Kenya, entered the arena.
Not surprisingly, the loudest cheers of the night were reserved for Shaun Pollock's home side closely followed by a sympathetic roar for Zimbabwe whose status as a host has been seriously undermined by the continuing row over whether or not England will fulfill its February 13 fixture in Harare. Amongst the sports celebrities introduced to the crowd was Basil D'Oliveira, the Cape-born cricketer who, as a coloured player, was refused entry to the country by the old apartheid government when he was chosen for England's tour here in 1968. As a result, England called off its proposed trip and the old South Africa's long sporting isolation, which was to last for over 20 years, began.
Also on show were rugby's Naas Botha, cricketer Graeme Pollock, footballer Lucas Radebe, swimmer Pennie Heyns and former motor racing world champion Jody Sheckter. From co-hosts Namibia there was athlete Frankie Fredericks and, from Kenya, fellow track star Kip Keino. International Cricket Council (ICC) president Malcolm Gray also welcomed the tournament. "I am thankful to the people of South Africa for embracing this great moment. It will be the largest sporting event and the biggest cricket tournament that has ever taken place."
Tight security was in operation at the three-million-dollar ceremony, which featured 4,700 performers, some of whom who had been rehearsing for over a year and showcased African scenes. Most of the crowd arrived a full two hours before the start of the ceremony and braved the fierce Cape winds which blew through the stadium which will also host the opening game of the tournament on Sunday between South Africa and the West Indies. A 32-ton stage was placed over the pitch area for the event while the wicket for Sunday's day-nighter was covered by agricultural matting aimed at keeping the grass beneath healthy enough for the first game in the World Cup which will last until March 23 when the final is played in Johannesburg.