Nelson Mandela with Desmond Tutu (left). Mandela was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to South Africa in 2010 (photo GettyImages)
Mandela was part of a high-profile South African delegation that went to Zurich to make final bids for the right to host the 2010 World Cup. His impassioned speech — in which he asked the voters to send the tournament to his country as a way to celebrate its 10th year of democracy — was said to be the game-changer. How could anyone say no to Mandela?
And they didn’t. South Africa became the first country on the African continent tasked with hosting football’s biggest event, a major coup considering that the country’s sporting isolation had ended little more than a decade before the decision was made.
“It is 28 years since FIFA took a stand against racially divided football and helped to inspire the final story against apartheid,” Mandela said, referring to the sporting boycott imposed on South Africa, which also affected him. “While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners,” he remembered. With the tournament headed to his homeland, Mandela would be able to watch the games live.
Hindsight is bittersweet. Mandela could not attend the opening match between South Africa and Mexico as planned because his 13 year-old great-granddaughter Zenani was killed in a car crash after a pre-tournament concert, and the family were in mourning.
Mandela’s actions had great symbolism. The country’s first black president, who represented the majority that had been disenfranchised, participated in an event in a sporting code which was largely played and supported by the white minority. Mandela wanted to breach those boundaries, and when he appeared wearing the Springboks jersey — willingly donning the colours of the former oppressor — he succeeded. “Nelson, Nelson,” the crowd chanted.
Cape Town was bidding for the 2004 event but eventually lost to Athens. No other South African city has entered that territory again but there is talk they might in the near future. Their only regret will be that Mandela will not be around to see it.
Still, his legacy will live on in sport. Mandela has an arena named after him; the Mandela Bay Stadium stands proudly in Port Elizabeth, the city in the Eastern Cape province where he is from. He was a keen boxer and took an interest in many other codes, once dressing up in cricket whites to attend a match between South Africa and England. Sports teams visiting South Africa were often visited by Mandela or made a stop at the Mandela home. David Beckham, Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali are among that group, and all extended their condolences upon his death.
In South Africa, sport was as much a political tool as any other because it could be used as shop front; sometimes for segregation, sometimes just for power-wielding. Even though sport is essentially about separation — winners from losers, good players from great ones — Mandela always chose to see it as something that could bring people together. He saw it as a great leveller, a great restorer of the human spirit and the thing that could make anyone, even an 85-year-old man, feel 15 again.
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else can.” — Nelson Mandela
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