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Mandela brought World Cup to South Africa

sports Updated: Jun 10, 2010 19:14 IST

DPA
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Would the football World Cup be taking place in Africa this year if it weren't for Nelson Mandela?

FIFA president Joseph Blatter didn't seem to think so when he read out the name of the winning bidder in Zurich May 15, 2004.

"You are the true architect of this FIFA World Cup; your presence and commitment made it happen," Blatter said handing over the trophy to a snowy-haired Mandela after the announcement that South Africa had secured the event on its second attempt.

For Mandela, who had stepped down as president five years earlier but still enjoyed huge influence, FIFA's decision was a ringing endorsement of his leadership.

Within 10 years of the demise of the racist apartheid regime, the Rainbow Nation, which he had guided to democracy, was being entrusted with hosting the world.

"I feel like a young man of 15," a delighted Mandela, who was 85 at the time, said.

The African National Congress stalwart had campaigned vigorously for the tournament, believing that the key to reconciling blacks and whites in South Africa lay in forging a common identity - a goal that could be advanced by creating shared moments in sport.

It was a formula he had tested with great success when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup a year after the country's first democratic elections in 1995.

US director Clint Eastwood's 2009 film Invictus retraces the story of how Mandela rallied blacks in support of the ultimately victorious home side, the Springboks, as a gesture of goodwill towards rugby-loving whites.

The roles were reversed the following year when the mainly black national football team lifted the African Cup of Nations.

By 2000, thanks to Mandela, South Africa had accumulated enough experience in hosting major sporting tournaments to be able to launch a credible bid for the World Cup.

But, despite Mandela personally canvassing countries for votes, South Africa narrowly lost out to Germany after New Zealand, which had pledged to support South Africa, suddenly abstained from the vote.

"It was a horrible moment," World Cup local organising committee chief executive Danny Jordaan recalled in an interview in April. "It felt like a dry river.

Four years later, however South Africa bounced back with a new bid entitled "Africa's time has come. South Africa is ready."

This time Mandela was leaving nothing to chance and joined fellow Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and then president Thabo Mbeki in presenting the bid at FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

"It is 28 years since FIFA took its stand against racially divided football and helped to inspire the final story against apartheid," Mandela said, recalling FIFA's expulsion of apartheid South Africa from its ranks in 1976, the year of a bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in Soweto township.

On Robben Island, the prison off Cape Town, where he spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars, "football was the only joy to prisoners," Mandela added.

That wasn't entirely true. Some prisoners had also enjoyed a game of rugby, or, in Mandela's case, a spot of tennis, gardening or chess.

But football did have a special place on the island. Football was a way of uniting divided anti-apartheid factions and prisoners crowded around radios to listen to the World Cup.

The FIFA ban on South Africa, which followed the country's expulsion from the Olympics in 1970, fired up the prisoners and stung the apartheid state, putting pressure on the regime to negotiate its exit from power.

In February 1990, former president FW de Klerk suddenly announced he was unconditionally releasing Mandela and unbanning the ANC.

Within four years Mandela was at the head of a majority black government and South Africa had ceased to be "the skunk of the world", in his own words.

In a fitting footnote to the story, Mandela will Friday attend part of the opening game in the World Cup at Soccer City and deliver a pre-recorded message, according to his nephew.

At 91, his attendance had been in question, but his daughter Zindzi Mandela told SAfm public radio on Thursday: "He's like an excited child."