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WHEN Bafana Bafana and Cape Verde players troop into National Stadium in Soweto to kick-start the Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday, one man who will be watching with pride is Mpho Mbedzi.

For the past four weeks, Mbedzi, 22, of Zandspruit informal settlement near Honeydew, has been knuckling down to lay the new turf at the stadium.

Painstakingly and bit by bit, he pulled out the strings of artificial grass from a roll and injected them between the natural, rye grass.

“Today, I started at the corner (flag). When I covered some 15m, they told me to go to the other (eastern) side. Before I could finish, they called me back this side.

“It’s a big area that needs to be stitched, but the grass will be ready before the game,” Mbedzi said.

He is one of the groundsmen from Servest Turf who are racing against time to complete the overlaying of the turf – with just three days left before the opening ceremony.

Last year, there was lot of consternation around the dreadful state of the pitch ahead of the Nelson Mandela Challenge international friendly between Bafana and Zambia.

Yesterday, however, the pitch had been transformed from bare, grubby sand into a lush green turf, with few rough patches evident.

“It takes a long time to stitch, but I try to do it quickly,” Mbedzi said, his voice occasionally drowned out by the sound of mowers trimming the grass.

His face lit up as he related how he imagined himself seated in the front row on Saturday, cheering his heroes just metres from the pitch.

“When Bafana Bafana play, I will watch and scream: ‘Hey guys, you got the best pitch! Just forget about the previous games and win!’ I am so proud that I also helped with the pitch and I really wish they can win on Saturday.”

Suddenly, the spark in his eyes dimmed. It’s the reality that he does not have a match ticket that dampened his spirit.

“I wish I can get a ticket because I really want to be here on Saturday. But I can’t afford it,” he lamented.

Afcon ticket prices range from R50 to R200 for the most expensive seats in the stands.

His assertion about the good state of the pitch was backed by Barry Pollen, a director of Stadium Management SA, the company contracted to manage National Stadium.

“The players can expect a world-class pitch on Saturday. It’s aesthetically pleasing for the cameras and the public, too,” said Pollen, who facilitated English giants Manchester City’s relocation to their current stadium in 2002.

Soccer followers would have seen how the grass at Cape Town Stadium was uprooted each time players made tackles.

But Pollen said the turf at National Stadium won’t fall apart.

“Only 3 percent of the turf is artificial grass. The natural (rye) grass binds around the artificial one and that gives you a very stable surface.

‘‘It’s normally very firm and the ball moves very quickly. This is arguably the best pitch in the world,” he said.