DURBAN, South Africa // Vincent Kompany, the Manchester City captain, said he was pleased to be in a country he "followed with passion" as a youngster in Belgium after the English Premier League team and new coach Manuel Pellegrini touched down in South Africa on Thursday.
City's touring squad made a low-key arrival in the east coast city of Durban for the annual Nelson Mandela Challenge, a regular football celebration of the former South African president's birthday that will be especially poignant this year with the ageing anti-apartheid hero critically ill in a hospital.
The deposed Premier League champions, with Pellegrini, Kompany, Sergio Aguero and new signing Fernandinho, were greeted by a small gathering of mainly media and local officials at King Shaka International Airport ahead of a two-game tour that forms part of their pre-season preparations.
City will play Supersport United in Pretoria on Sunday in Pellegrini's first game in charge since replacing Roberto Mancini. That is followed by a match with AmaZulu in Durban next Thursday, Mandela's 95th birthday.
"I happened to read a lot about South Africa when I was younger and followed with passion what happened in South Africa because of the fact that Nelson Mandela was one of my heroes," Belgian Kompany said at Umhlanga Rocks beach resort, north of the city. "He was one of my examples and I carry a lot of what he taught me and my family through the books I read on him."
While City recognised the special significance of this Nelson Mandela Challenge, Pellegrini also has to start work on winning back the Premier League title from crosstown rivals Manchester United.
"We are just starting the season and we know we have to work very hard because we are convinced that we can reach the very important targets that have been set out this season," Pellegrini said. "We know it's not easy because the Premier League has four or five very strong teams."
Apart from signing Brazil midfielder Fernandinho from Shakhtar Donetsk, the club has also recruited Spain winger Jesus Navas from Sevilla, although he is not with the squad in South Africa due to his involvement in last month's Confederations Cup.
The club is still hoping to add more players in the offseason, Pellegrini said, especially up front after having sold Carlos Tevez to Juventus.
"As you know we're in the market at this moment. We don't know who is going to come in here, but we are trying to get the best players to arrive at our squad," Pellegrini said.
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