The Madiba face of sports

Nelson Mandela’s death is a big blow to  the South African sports fraternity. He leaves an indelible mark on the face of South African sports, especially his role in ‘bringing’ the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.   
Nelson Mandela lifts the World Cup Trophy after playing a crucial role in winning South Africa the rights to host the 2010 finals. Left is his anti-Apartheid struggle colleague archbishop Desmond Tutu. Net photo.
Nelson Mandela lifts the World Cup Trophy after playing a crucial role in winning South Africa the rights to host the 2010 finals. Left is his anti-Apartheid struggle colleague archbishop Desmond Tutu. Net photo.

Nelson Mandela’s death is a big blow to  the South African sports fraternity. He leaves an indelible mark on the face of South African sports, especially his role in ‘bringing’ the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.    

With just 48 hours to the final voting by Fifa executives on Saturday, May 15, 2005, delegates from Morocco and the rest of Africa were celebrating what was already in the bag. The hour of reckoning for the host nation of the first World Cup football extravaganza on African soil was nigh.

African delegates, with the exception of Botswana’s Ismail Bhamjee, had all agreed to vote for Morocco. The North-African Arab country was thus pitted to win 14-10 after Libya was disqualified. The third candidate, Egypt, eventually got no vote.

With the tide flirting to make Morocco both the first African and the first Arab country to host the football's showpiece, a frail Nelson Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki took a flight from Johannesburg to Zurich Thursday morning. On arrival at 8am, Mandela did not waste time in weaving the Madiba magic.

The biggest subject to lobbying became Jack Warner, then Fifa vice-president from Trinidad and head of Concacaf, the federation representing north and central America and the Caribbean. The bloc had three votes on the 24-man Fifa executive. According to The Telegraph, while the rest of the Fifa executive members were in one hotel, Warner was based in the same hotel as the Moroccans.

“On Thursday, the Moroccans were predicting victory, confident they had 14 votes,” The Telegraph reported. “But helped by the personal intervention of Mandela and Mbeki, a crucial bloc of four votes swung to South Africa, unleashing unprecedented scenes of joy in the Rainbow Nation.”

"I feel like a young man of 15," the frail-looking 85-year-old Mandela declared in Zurich while lifting the five-kilogramme Fifa WC trophy made of 18 carat gold with a malachite base.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, carried away by excitement, promised all the Fifa executive first-class air tickets to heaven as he danced a jig in front of Mandela. The disappointment of losing the 2006 bid to Germany, thanks to Charlie Dempsey, president of the Oceania Football Confederation, who chose to abstain despite his ‘hatred’ for Europe and against the instructions of his federation that he votes Africa. Germany won the bid 12-11.

Whereas the image of Mandela lifting the Fifa World Cup Trophy remains one of the hallmarks of sports moments, the Madiba magic had long found its way in the echelons of sports diaries. Eight years earlier, Mandela had charmed the continent and helped wave his magic that saw the Bafana Bafana lift the 1996 Nations Cup title on home soil. Mandela would watch every game Bafana Bafana played, appearing in his replica Number 9 jersey of Captain Neil Tovey. The clincher was the president handing over the trophy to the captain. The pair cut such a sight!

A year earlier, a similar storyline that gave much of the plot of Hollywood movie, Invictus, a 2009 biographical sports drama film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, when Mandela inspired the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, to the International Rugby Union World Cup triumph on home soil.

President Mandela was in the 60,000 crowd at Ellis Park to watch the Springboks capture the IRB World Cup with a dramatic 15-12 victory over favourites All Blacks in the first match to go to extra time. Mandela was clad in the Number Six replica jersey of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar.

However, for a team deemed jinxed, not even the Madiba magic could exorcise the ghost that bedevils the Proteas, as South Africa’s cricket team is called. They are much maligned for failing to win major tournaments. Even while hosting the 2003 Cricket World Cup, the Proteas failed to progress beyond the group stage due to a misunderstanding of how many runs they needed to score in a drenched run chase.

Similarly, Bafana Bafana, who approached the 2010 home World Cup at their worst of forms, failed miserably, becoming the first host nation to fail to progress beyond the first round. Mandela was 92 and too frail to boost the team. He had won the Rainbow Nation the right to host the World Cup, but fate dictated he would not attend the matches. Mandela only appeared for the closing ceremony in the company of wife Graca Marcel. He was wearing winter clothes, cap and gloves.

The post-apartheid South Africa sports calendar has had the most of its shining moments under the magical influence of Madiba.

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