The entire world is in mourning today at the death of one of its most respected, revered and beloved figures. And nowhere is the sense of loss, nor the appreciation of Nelson Mandela’s colossal contribution, more keenly felt than within the global football family.
For FIFA President Blatter, to whom Mandela became a true and treasured friend during the preparations for Africa’s first-ever FIFA World Cup™ three years ago, there are countless memories of the man whose message of peace and reconciliation united a country that had been divided for decades.
As the FIFA President said: "It is in deep mourning that I pay my respects to an extraordinary person, probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He and I shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship, and to teach basic social and educational values as a school of life. When he was honoured and cheered by the crowd at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium on 11 July 2010, it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced. For him, the World Cup in South Africa truly was 'a dream come true'. Nelson Mandela will stay in our hearts forever. The memories of his remarkable fight against oppression, his incredible charisma and his positive values will live on in us and with us."
As the world remembers Mandela, football fans will certainly recall with a smile the emotional moment when this towering international icon held aloft the beautiful game’s greatest prize. Minutes after South Africa was awarded the right to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in May of 2004, an emotional Nelson Mandela made his way to the stage in Zurich, lifted the World Cup trophy and, in one of his impromptu moving moments, shed a tear with a broad smile on his face. It was an exciting hour for a legendary man who had campaigned rather tirelessly for his country to win the right to host the world’s greatest football showpiece.
Madiba, as he was affectionately known (his clan name), remains one of the world’s most celebrated living icons and an individual was a man whose appeal transgressed race, colour, religion and nationality. In his own country, he remains a powerful symbol of hope, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. From the podium a day before the voting in Zurich, Madiba had told delegates and the 24 FIFA Executive Committee members that hosting the World Cup would be a “dream come true” for him and other children of Africa. It was a bold statement from a man who had sacrificed so much, including spending almost three decades in prison, for his country.
"While we were on Robben Island, the only access to a FIFA World Cup would have been through a radio. Football offered the only joyful relief to prisoners. Through football, we can celebrate the humanity of the Southern tip of the African continent and share it with the rest of the continent world,” Madiba said.
To understand the significance and the depth of his words at that particular moment, one would need to look at the road that was travelled by Madiba. The images of an old and greying Mandela emerging from the notorious Victor Verster Prison after almost three decades in incarceration, shouting the struggle slogan ‘Amandla’ (power to the people) gained legendary status almost immediately. These were the first images of a man, who, until then, had only been known by his name and had not been seen for 27 years. It was those years of constant manual labour in the quarries of Robben Island, and the lonely nights in total isolation that had helped shape Mandela’s vision. As he came out of prison, he dedicated his life into rebuilding his country that had been wrecked by apartheid. Instead of war, he preached peace; instead of vengeance, he sought reconciliation.
Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela was born in the Eastern Cape on 18 July, 1918 at Mvezo village - a few kilometres from the nearest town, Mthatha. His early years were spent in Qunu, another small village also outside Mthatha in the former Transkei. Growing up under the repressive apartheid laws, Mandela soon realised that his life should be devoted in emancipating his people from oppression. A qualified lawyer then, he started to lead mass action, including the Defiance Campaign, one of the earliest major non-violent resistances in protest of the pass laws.
It didn’t take long before he attracted the attention of the government at the time. In 1962, Mandela was arrested and imprisoned to five years. This was his first encounter with a place that would be his home for almost two decades, Robben Island. While in prison, new charges were brought against him and other political activists of sabotage against the state, which carried a maximum sentence of death. Only mounting international pressure and worldwide demonstrations saved him and his fellow accused from the gallows. They were sentenced to life imprisonment at the unforgiving conditions of Robben Island - a small Island in the Pacific a few kilometres outside Cape Town. It was place reserved for to incarcerating so-called ‘opponents of the state’.
Mandela used a mat as a bed and a thin blanket to protect him from the cold Pacific winds and harsh prison cement. In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, he recounted: “Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system. It was a hardship station not only for the prisoners but for the prison staff. We came face-to-face with the realisation that our life would be unredeemably grim. It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”
As international pressure and sporting isolation - including FIFA’s ban on South Africa - tightened around the apartheid government, change became inevitable. On 2 February 1990, South Africa president, Frederick W. de Klerk shocked the world by announcing that Mandela would be released after 27 years in prison. A few days later, on 11 February, the greying Mandela emerged out of the Victor Verster Prison. In his first press conference, he spoke passionately about the need for his country to unite and advocated for reconciliation – a process that was to heal with the deep scars and emotional wounds caused by the injustices of the apartheid regime. Four years later, Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. After serving his first term, he stepped down from politics and announced his retirement. But instead of retreating to his home in the rural Qunu village, Madiba continued to work towards improving the lives of his people, and of course, bringing the FIFA World Cup to the edge of the continent.
When that moment finally arrived, and despite his increasing frailty and the tragic death of his great-granddaughter on the eve of the tournament, the 92-year-old made sure that he took his place at this landmark event in South African history. Indeed, one of the most memorable and emotional moments of an unforgettable African FIFA World Cup came ahead of the Final, when Madiba took to the field to a spine-tingling ovation from the fans gathered in Johannesburg’s Soccer City. It was fitting that the man who had done so much to bring the tournament to South Africa should take centre stage as it reached a triumphant climax and, as we bid a fond, final farewell, the football family can only be grateful for Madiba’s inspirational example and enduring legacy.