When an all-star World XI take on an African XI in honour of Nelson Mandela's 89th birthday, Kalusha Bwalya will be lining up for the Mother Continent's team. The former Zambia international, PSV Eindhoven star and ex-national team coach is an ambassador for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and in a recent interview with FIFA.com, the 44-year-old shared his views on the special occasion on 18 July.
What does it mean to you to take part in a game like this?
In terms of what he (Mandela) has gone through, there is no comparison. He represents freedom and an end to apartheid. It's more than just a football match, what we are doing. We had the chance to meet the man himself, to travel with him, campaigning for the 2010 World Cup. To be in the presence of such a man is just breathtaking. He brings a lot of wisdom, a lot of joy, a lot of warmth and comfort to a room.
You already played in a game for Nelson Mandela in 1999, and you even scored a goal. Can you tell us your memories of this game?
I had the privilege to be a part of the Nelson Mandela Team in 1999, when we played in Ellis Park in Johannesburg against a World XI. I scored two goals. At that time, I was playing in Mexico but I really wanted to go to South Africa to play in the game. It was a long trip but it was worth going because of the importance, the man himself, and what he represented. For me, its not just a football match, but a significance of our times, what football stands for, what FIFA stands for, openness, goodwill. Nelson Mandela carries this himself.
What was the atmosphere like in that game?
The atmosphere was great. I remember one thing in particular: we had lunch, and I was with two guys from Mexico, one of them was (former goalkeeper) Jorge Campos. They were playing for the world team, I played for the African team and Jomo Sono was our coach. We asked the waiter to take a picture, but when I came back to Mexico, we found that the pictures were blurred. So only afterwards, I saw that the waiter was shivering so much when talking that picture because Nelson Mandela was in the frame. That shows what he means for the South African people. It means a lot to be in the presence of such a good man. FIFA came up with one of the best teams and it was a wonderful occasion that you cherish for the rest of your life.
How important is Mr Mandela for Africa?
Since the time when he was in Robben Island, he became a symbol for all Africans. Not only the South Africans, but for all of us. In terms of freedom and hope, he was able to symbolise that throughout his life and when he was president. If you look at South Africa, where it is right now, economically and otherwise, it is down to Nelson Mandela.
How symbolic is it for you to visit Robben Island?
I have never been to Robben Island before. This will be the first time that I go there. I think we can use places like that for ourselves to make a better world. The good part is that a person like him (Mandela) was able to go through so many years in that prison and come out and still be able to make a difference in this world. It's very significant that he stayed at Robben Island and I'm looking forward to playing in that symbolic match there.
*What message do you hope to get across through this very special match? * It's great for me to meet great people like Nelson Mandela. That's what the world of football signifies. I think that FIFA's slogan - For the game. For the world - is a statement about hope, about inspiration and about passion. Nelson Mandela has been able to give us that. I want to get this message out.
The FIFA World Cup will be held in South Africa in three years. How important will it be for the continent?
It's a way to build confidence in ourselves as Africans. In Africa there has been depression and hunger. But there is also hope, and there is also football, which I think that Africans can play very well. South Africa got the chance to organise and host the World Cup. All eyes will be trained on Africa. We are all one. And I think we are happy people. South Africa will be able to stage a great event for the world and for Africa.
Do you think the time has come for an African team to win the FIFA World Cup?
It's never too early. There will come a time when an African team will challenge for the top spot with the likes of England, Brazil, France or Germany. We are not far off. We have the talent. See the amazing teams like Ghana, Ivory Coast or Tunisia to name just a few. I can name about ten teams that could be able to play at a very high level in international competition. We just hope that we can have fun and compete well, so the World Cup is a success and our teams last in the competition. We hope that the biggest surprise will come from Africa this time.
How about your team, Zambia? You were close to qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. What are the chances this time around?
We were very close last time. If we hadn't lost the game against Senegal at home, we would have probably gone to the World Cup. I feel proud to have left a good foundation for the team in Zambia. Look at the U-20 team that will be part of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 this July. Or the U-23 that had a good start in the qualifiers for the Olympics, and finally, our senior national team is in a good way for the Africa Nations Cup. Hopefully, we can build on that and Zambia can be present in the World Cup for the first time. South Africa is very near and I know Zambian fans would walk to South Africa if need be and if the team qualifies. We are waiting with anticipation for the Preliminary Draw in November.