Nelson Mandela has had his fair share of crosses to bear in his life. And as he turns 89, some of the world's best footballers are presenting him with yet another challenge.
Tonight's star-studded game between the World XI and African XI has with good reason been billed "90 minutes for Mandela". "Nelson Mandela loves challenges," explains Tokyo Sexwale, FIFA's anti-racism High Commissioner and one of Madiba's long-time friends, in discussing the game's theme, adding that Mandela's "entire life has been filled with challenges".
"He has always taken up causes that seemed to be unpopular, yet became the most popular. Issues such as Apartheid and Aids. He has shown that you can turn a situation of disadvantage and adversity into one of virtue and victory. Now, we are saying to him '90 minutes for Mandela' is a challenge for him to live on into his 90s. When we meet again, to play the main game on his 90th birthday next year, it will be one of the most celebrated events ever," says Sexwale.
It's a light-hearted dig of encouragement for an icon whose
inspired many generations and whose smile still lights up any room. As players like Pele, Ruud Gullit, Samuel Eto'o, Lucas Radebe and Emilio Butragueno don their playing kit for Mandela, it will be with the utmost reverence for a man whose virtue defies belief.
"A lot of us see him as so many things. He is a role model. A leader. A freedom fighter. A reconciler. A pacifier. A father. And mentor. But you know what? Most of all he's just a friend. He is a friend of everybody he meets. I've never seen a more remarkable person. He has such an incredible aura, but when you meet him you don't meet this great person. He's just Madiba. He will stand up for anything and anyone he believes in," says Sexwale.
And as much as tonight's game is a tribute to Mandela on his birthday, it's also a chance for FIFA to recognise the contribution of a group of freedom fighters who, like Madiba, put their lives on the line for a cause they believed in.
For the extraordinary footballers of the Makana Football Association, a group of political prisoners who started their own league on the notorious Robben Island, today is also a day on which FIFA president Joseph S Blatter awarded them Associate Member status of world football's governing body.¨
Sexwale, who was one of the Makana FA's top administrators, speaks fondly of the freedom fighters who defied apartheid's laws, but adhered strictly to FIFA statutes in hotly contested football matches on the island.
"The Makana Football Association was named after one of the great chiefs of our struggle. He was one of the first political prisoners sent to Robben Island. The Makana FA was based on the model of FIFA rules. We played 90 minutes. The pitch we played on had to be a certain shape and size and the goalposts had to be exactly the same distance apart. The players dressed in a certain way. Even the spectators dressed up in the different colours of their teams," recalls Sexwale.
Given that they were regarded as the worst enemies of the apartheid state and were banished to an offshore prison with no prospect of ever again returning to the life they once knew, football provided the political prisoners with some semblance of normality.
"The game of football kept us alive. Everything was prohibited on Robben Island, but we used to smuggle FIFA rulebooks underground. We even had 'professional' referees and proper disciplinary committees. The teams were divided according to their political affiliation. There were days when if the Pan Africanist Congress was angry, there would be no game. But the Makana Football Association was a vehicle that united all of us. It ran across all political barriers. We realised it was a very important tool for our own solidarity, unity and co-operation. I am not surprised the United Nations has less members than FIFA has," says Sexwale.
Among the best players on the island, he recalls, were the likes of Terror Lekota (now South Africa's Minister of Defence) and Kgalema Motlanthe (currently the African National Congress General Secretary), while Dikgang Moseneke (now a Constitutional Court Justice) was one of the best legal minds on the league's disciplinary committee at the time.
After years of campaigning, Sexwale's wife, Judy, was eventually allowed to bring the prisoners proper football kit. Sexwale had met Judy on the island when she was still a paralegal who provided legal advice to the prisoners.
"Prisoners used any material they could lay their hands on to make a football. We played with whatever was available and the football nets were made from real fishing nets which had washed up on the island. We asked for permission to pick them up from the shore. By the time I came onto Robben Island, the Makana FA had made a number of strides. After many protests, we were eventually allowed to have our first proper soccer ball. It took about 15 years, but eventually Judy was allowed to bring us proper kit, with boots with studs, footballs, proper playing kit and even referees' whistles. Then you should have seen the games," Sexwale says with a broad smile.
FIFA's recognition of the Makana FA is an emotional moment for Sexwale and for many other political prisoners held captive on the island."Makana's recognition is important because we used football as an instrument of change".
And what a change it's been from the most dire circumstances.