Nelson Mandela is undoubtedly one of the most revered statesman in modern history. Affectionately known by his clan name, Madiba, he was a central figure in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, but has become renowned as a philanthropist for his stance on racism and oppression. He is opposed to any form of segregation, famously saying at one of his numerous trials: "I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes form a black man or a white man."
He turns 90 today, approximately a third of those years were spent incarcerated as a result of this very stance. Despite being a political prisoner, Madiba did not lose faith in the humanity of people and held steadfast to his ideals non-racialism, non-sexism and equality, even at the height of the segregation policies in South Africa.
The first general election in South Africa in 1994 was the first time universal suffrage was granted and the first time in his life that he voted, at the age of 75. This was also the election that saw the political leader voted into office as a free man and as the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa. In one of his speeches as President of the Republic, he declared that South Africa's liberation "affirmed a truism of human history: that the people are their own liberators".
Madiba was himself a sportsman as an amateur boxer, but he also identified the constructive force of sport and football in his vision. At the International Fair Play Awards, he said: "Who could doubt that sport is a crucial window for the propagation of fair play and justice? After all, fair play is a value that is essential to sport!"
Mandela and football
Mandela was involved with football on many levels. While living in Soweto during the height of his political activities, he would use football matches as a tool to mobilise South Africans against the apartheid government.
Later, during his life on Robben Island, he became enthralled by the Makana Football Association, which famously formed a football league. It became an escape for him and many of the other prisoners on the island. As former prisoner, Sipho Tshabalala explained: "It was more therapeutic for us, and our lives here. It made us feel like we were human beings, it made us feel that at least we were not isolated."
Mandela's intertwined path with football continued after his release in 1990. Soccer City was the venue for the first public rally by the 'unbanned' ANC, and he was also part of the crowd in the same arena who cheered South Africa to victory in the 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. He even provided pep talks to the South African national team during that tournament and was there to hand the trophy to Neil Tovey at the joyous finale. Fittingly, it will be in the same venue where these remarkable scenes were played out that the final match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ will be contested.
For Madiba's 89th birthday, FIFA hosted a benefit match called '90 Minutes for Mandela', which pitted an African XI against a Rest of the World XI. Famous footballers from past and present such as Samuel Eto'o, Andoni Zubizaretta, Hossam Hassan, Ivan Zamorano, Ruud Gullit, George Weah, Emilio Butragueno and former South African captain Lucas Radebe all took part to join the world in celebrating one of its most celebrated icons.
Mandela was also, of course, a fundamental cog in South Africa's bid for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and in forging a lifelong friendship between the country and the world's governing body. Certainly, the image of Mandela holding the FIFA World Cup Trophy with tears in his eyes is one that is forever emblazoned into the history of the game's greatest tournament.
The warmth that exists between FIFA and Mandela was once again shown in the birthday wish sent by Joseph S. Blatter to the legendary statesman. The FIFA President wrote: "There is no greater symbol of Africa's Humanity than you - Nelson Mandela - and what you stand for. You gave more than your share to your country and your continent, you dedicated your lifetime to the promotion of human rights and democracy and you have led the endless fight for freedom not only of your people, the South Africans, but of all mankind."
Blatter's words will be echoed across the world, with the entire football community doubtless keen to join the FIFA President in wishing this inspirational humanitarian a very happy birthday, with many more to come.