Football fans told how they feared being crushed to death today in a stampede at a stadium in Johannesburg that left 15 injured – and cast a pall over South Africa's preparations to host the World Cup.
A policeman was seriously hurt after thousands of people surged to see a pre-tournament warm-up between Nigeria and North Korea, which had to be halted briefly because of the chaos.
"I thought I was dying," said one fan, Princess Mbali, describing how people trampled her. "I was at the bottom … Maybe my ribs are broken. No one is helping us and we are South Africans."
It was the worst possible timing for World Cup organisers, who have faced years of "Afro-pessimism" about their ability to stage the world's biggest sporting event. Hours earlier, South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, had triumphantly declared the country "more than ready".
Yet all the old doubts could resurface after the trouble in Tembisa, a poor township in Johannesburg. Among the questions facing organisers is why the match was staged at Makhulong stadium, which only seats about 12,000 fans, rather than at one of the World Cup venues. Entry to the game was free – many more turned up to the match than capacity allowed.
A witness described crowd control as atrocious despite the presence of hundreds of police.
The first rush came when the stadium gates were opened to allow the fans in. Police soon closed the gates, but when they were reopened there was another rush, with many more people falling and being trampled.
One fan, wearing a South Africa rugby jersey and bleeding from the head, said he had been unable to escape the crush. "I fell down and people just fell over me," Japhta Mombelo recalled. "That crowd is overpowering. The police have told me to stay around and they will organise an ambulance but I am still waiting."
Shortly after the second rush, the gates were closed once more and much of the crowd dispersed. Fans who appeared to be lightly injured walked away from the scene as it calmed down.
The Nigerian and North Korean football teams were lining up for the national anthems when the second surge happened. They had no idea what was going on outside. The match was suspended for about 10 minutes shortly after the second half began but then restarted. Security was also increased as the match went on.
Colonel Eugene Opperman of the South African Police Service said: "There was definitely a stampede, but it happened on the outside of the stadium and not the inside. We have 14 civilians that are injured and one policeman. There were no deaths."
The Makhulong stadium is nothing like those built or renovated for the World Cup. It has concrete terraces and is surrounded by a fence with gates and no turnstiles.
Sceptics have pointed to past sporting tragedies in Africa, including Ellis Park in Johannesburg in 2001 when 43 people were crushed to death. Last year, in Ivory Coast, 22 people died in a stampede at a World Cup qualifying match.
But South Africa finally seemed to be winning its long public relations battle. This morning, Zuma, posing for photos with the World Cup trophy and Fifa president Sepp Blatter in Pretoria, criticised those who doubted the nation's ability to host the first World Cup on the African continent.
"We are truly pleased and humbled to host the world in our country for this historical and extraordinary event," the president said. "Building up to the tournament, we have seen something that we have never seen before. South Africa is more than ready. We are ready and for us the World Cup has already begun."
It is still uncertain whether former president Nelson Mandela, who turns 92 next month, will attend the competition's opening ceremony on Friday.
Zuma added: "For any aged person the manner in which you carry yourself has changed. That is a decision for president Mandela to make. If he is there it will be a bonus for this tournament."
Blatter confirmed that he had recently met Mandela, saying "his spirit will be present" even if the former president was unable to attend in person.