One of the world’s greatest statesmen, Nelson Mandela will celebrate his 92nd birthday in the company of his family this Sunday. Mandela, the global icon who campaigned tirelessly for peace and emancipation of his people, will remain in Johannesburg for an event he has occasionally celebrated in Qunu, the village where he grew up.

After spending 27 years in prison between 1962 and 1990 for his role in fighting the apartheid regime, Madiba (his clan name) became the first President of post-apartheid South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He also served as one of the prime movers behind the country’s successful bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. On Sunday, some of the world’s sport stars, celebrities and renowned personalities will celebrate the life of a man who selflessly gave up three decades of his life in working towards equality for all and global peace. FIFA President, Joseph S. Blatter also paid a special tribute to Madiba on this special day.

“In general, birthdays are an occasion to congratulate someone and wish them the best, but to me your birthday represents much more than that,” stated FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter in a birthday letter addressed to Mandela. “I don’t think I am able to express all the thoughts and emotions I would like to share with you in a simple letter, but know that I cherish this friendship that cannot be expressed in words.”

Born in the rural village of Mvezo in the former Transkie, Madiba spent his childhood in Qunu village, about 20 kilometres from Mthatha. His early years were spent in this area until he left for higher education to Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape. It is here that his thinking was shaped and began his devotion and quest for freedom. After moving to Johannesburg, Madiba began his open defiance to the system and was consequently arrested. Freed in 1990 after years of perennial struggling in Robben Island, he led his country to a peaceful transition.

This year, Madiba’s birthday will be celebrated worldwide as ‘Nelson Mandela International Day’, an occasion endorsed by the United Nations to commemorate his “contribution to the culture of peace and freedom”. The Day will be observed annually every 18 July. Current South African President Jacob Zuma is also due to deliver a speech in Qunu on Sunday.

I don’t think I am able to express all the thoughts and emotions I would like to share with you in a simple letter.

For his part, President Blatter honoured Madiba earlier this month by adding his handprints to the Mandela Legacy Canvas at Cape Town’s City Hall on 6 July. Afterwards, the FIFA President spoke of feeling privileged to have been invited to support such an admirable project in a place of great historical significance. "I am deeply honoured to be present in this building, which is so full of history," he said. "And I can only fully agree with Nelson Mandela's words that this World Cup can unite people, change the world and lay the foundations for a better future."

As part of the event, the FIFA President also declared his commitment to Mandela’s legacy by signing a scroll that will be framed and displayed for visitors to the City Hall. There was a poignant moment too as Blatter was invited to switch on the light on the City Hall balcony, where Madiba gave his first speech following his release from prison.

“As a great consensus builder, he knew this event would contribute to strengthening and deepening patriotic ties in our young democracy,” added the committee charged with organising Mandela’s birthday celebrations. “The World Cup brought together people of different races, colours and religions under the banner of the same national identity.”

He brought the World Cup to South Africa, and on the day of the Final he realised his ambition of attending in person. I have to pay homage to the world’s greatest living humanist – Nelson Madiba Mandela.

Blatter on the South African icon

Having done so much to bring the tournament to South Africa, Mandela made a point of visiting Johannesburg’s Soccer City Stadium on 11 July, ahead of the very first FIFA World Cup Final to be held on African soil. Amid memorable scenes, the 85,000 fans packed into the venue to watch Spain take on the Netherlands gave him the most rousing of ovations.

“This World Cup was the stage for a very special moment, tied up with the history of freedom and the history of one man,” explained the FIFA President afterwards. “This is a man who has suffered so much, but since being freed from prison he has spoken only of peace and understanding. I first met Nelson Mandela in 1992 and he had a dream: to bring the World Cup to his country. That dream has come true. He brought the World Cup to South Africa, and on the day of the Final he realised his ambition of attending in person. I have to pay homage to the world’s greatest living humanist – Nelson Madiba Mandela.”