JOHANNESBURG — Rising into the predawn African sky, long before the sun Friday, came the sound of the vuvuzelas.
They signaled the beginning of a historic day, the day when much of the sporting world's attention — even in the United States — was focused not on the NBA Finals, not on baseball's pennant races and not on the Chicago Blackhawks' ongoing Stanley Cup-winning celebrations.
Instead, eyes were turned to a soccer game being played in Johannesburg, and not just any game but the first World Cup match to be played on African soil.
South Africa and Mexico were the protagonists — they tied 1-1 — but it was really the home team's special occasion. The beehive buzz of the vuvuzelas, those ubiquitous plastic horns, was not so much a joyous celebration of a sporting event but the sound of a nation coming together.
"It's more than soccer," Matshela Koko, the 42-year-old head of engineering at Eskom, South Africa's power company, said as he approached Soccer City stadium, site of the 32-nation tournament's opening ceremony and opening game.
"I've never seen South Africa like this. The last time I saw it was when Nelson Mandela was released. This day for me is the same. It's a good feeling. It's like when I voted for the first time.
"It's (a) once-in-a-lifetime experience. It will never happen again. So I had to be here."
The sentiment was echoed time and again by fans of all hues as they arrived for the afternoon match.
"This is the culmination of about four or five years of South African energy coming together, and it's just fantastic," said Keith Warren, 40, the Africa representative of an American fast-food company.
"Everyone's on fire. Everyone's loving it. Everyone's proud of being South African. Everyone's proud of being African. I travel a lot, and Africa sees this as its World Cup, so it's very, very special."
Mandela, who campaigned vigorously for South Africa to host the World Cup, could not be at the game. Frail health and the death of his 13-year-old great-granddaughter, Zenani Mandela, in a car accident the night before kept the 91-year-old former South African president and Nobel Prize winner at home.
Several key players in South Africa's political transformation were there, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who at one point was dancing in his seat to the music. Vice President Joe Biden also was among the VIPs.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, addressed fans before the match and passed along a message from Mandela.
"He said the game must go on, you must enjoy the game," Zuma said. "The time for Africa has come. It has arrived."
That was the feeling coursing through fans in the crowd of 84,490.
The crowd then rose for the Mexican and South African national anthems, the latter a fusion of the main hymn of the anti-apartheid movement and the anthem of the former white-minority government.
It was not an occasion for those who like it quiet, thanks to the vuvuzelas. The public address announcer then begged the crowd to ease up on the noise so the global television audience could hear the music. The plea met with limited success.
An all-star cast of musicians, including South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and American singer R. Kelly, performed. Cast members brought out large placards with the flags of the 32 nations competing in the tournament, holding them high as a final burst of fireworks ended the show.
Before long, the video screens were showing the South Africa team — known to its fans as Bafana Bafana, a term of endearment meaning "the boys the boys" — dancing, singing and chanting in the tunnel on its way to the field.
And then it was time for the game.