They played to celebrate the life of an extraordinary man, so some of the world's best footballers weren't about to play an ordinary "90 Minutes for Mandela".
On Mandela's 89th birthday, an African XI and Rest of the World XI treated 35,412 excited fans - and millions more watching in over 150 countries worldwide - to an entertaining 3-3 draw at the Newlands Stadium in Cape Town.
Some of the game's biggest stars had come out to play for Mandela, among them Africa's brightest young star Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon, Holland's former two-time World Player of the Year Ruud Gullit, Liberia's 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year George Weah, Spain's Emilio Butragueno and former South African captain Lucas Radebe.
And they didn't disappoint, producing a high-quality game which was a fitting tribute to the iconic Mandela.
From Pele to Eto'o
Adding to the superstar quality on the night was the presence of the legendary Brazilian Pele. He may be well into his 60s now, but many of the crowd had still come to the stadium hoping to catch just a glimpse of the great Pele in action on the pitch. His turned out to be a ceremonial pre-match role, but the scenes of Pele and Eto'o running around the field, arms aloft, set the scene for a memorable night of football.
The African XI started the game with a strike pairing of Eto'o and George Weah, a duo which would have been more than a handful for any international defence. In his heyday, former AC Milan and Chelsea striker Weah was one of the most feared finishers in the game. He's now 40 and carrying considerably more weight than in his playing days, but in the game's opening minute the big Liberian turned back the clock with a burst of speed which left the World XI defence for dead.
His delicate chip beat Spanish veteran keeper Andoni Zubizaretta, but hit the upright.
The game's first goal, though, was a classy one after just six minutes from the World XI. Butragueno cut open the African defence with a pearl of a through ball, with Gullit wide on the right delivering the perfect cross that Chile's Ivan Zamorano nodded easily past goalkeeper Andre Arendse.
The equaliser was quick in coming just three minutes later, after an equally good passing move which featured Eto'o, former Zambian captain Kalusha Bwalya and Ghana's Abedi Pele, who finished the slick move after a pinpoint Eto'o cross.
The half-hour mark came a goal crafted in North Africa, with Tunisia's Zoubair Baya delivering another perfectly weighted ball for Hossam Hassan, who showed the predatory finishing instincts which made him Egypt's most-capped player and all-time top scorer.
Africans in charge at the half
The African team were better in the first half, putting together some lovely passing moves and looking the slicker and more determined of the two sides.
But when you're up against a highly motivated Gullit, still looking every bit the devastating player he was in his prime in the 1980s, there's always the chance of conceding a goal.
And indeed Gullit, by far the best World XI player in the opening half, deservedly equalised when he finished a move engineered by Butragueno and Iran's Ali Daei on the stroke of halftime.
Eto'o had promised the game of his life for Mandela beforehand and as sprightly and skilful as he was on the night, he found Spanish goalkeeper Andoni Zubizaretta in vintage form and denying him time and again.
Zubizaretta could do nothing against the evergreen Hassan though, with the Egyptian again on hand in the 49th minute to drill home a shot from close range.
The World XI, however, were determined not to be outdone and yet again equalised in the 73rd minute, courtesy of a great shot from Spaniard Julen Guerrero.
And, fittingly, that's how it finished...
A moment to savour
For the fans, it was an occasion to cherish and for the players too a chance to pay homage to a world leader and icon for whom they have the utmost respect.
"I got the opportunity today to realise a dream to be on the same field as Pele - a legend, a giant. And I also got to play next to great players like Ruud Gullit, my great friends and my seniors," said an excited Eto'o. "It was also a dream to sit next to Pele, to be able to talk to him and meet Nelson Mandela with him. You don't often get the chance to do things like that. It's really incredible."
"To play for Mandela was the greatest thing that could have happened to me," Weah added. "I was here. I was present. I got my souvenir and I am so happy to have been part of the festivities."
The night, though, was all about admiration for one of the greatest men of all. And the world of football certainly played its part in giving him a party to remember.