Mandela guile brought World Cup to South Africa

The former South African president and the main figure behind the struggle to end apartheid turns 92 a week after the July 11 final at Soccer City. He is now probably too frail to repeat his memorable handing of the winner’s trophy to South Africa captain Francois Pienaar when their country hosted and won the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

JOHANNESBURG  _ When Nelson Mandela was released from his 27-year jail sentence in February 1990, few people in football envisaged the World Cup being staged in his homeland.

Twenty years later, it’s a reality. The stadiums are built, the fans are buying tickets and booking their hotel rooms in nine cities from Johannesburg to Cape Town to Durban. And few people would deny that none of this would have happened without him.

The former South African president and the main figure behind the struggle to end apartheid turns 92 a week after the July 11 final at Soccer City. He is now probably too frail to repeat his memorable handing of the winner’s trophy to South Africa captain Francois Pienaar when their country hosted and won the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Wearing a green South African rugby shirt with a Springbok motif once hated by the oppressed black majority, Mandela said to Pienaar, a white Afrikaner: “Francois, thank you very much for what you have done for our country.”

“No, Mr. President,” Pienaar replied. “Thank you for what you have done for our country.”

Pienaar recalls how Mandela, who could have walked out of jail seeking revenge on the oppressive white minority, instead won them over with his open-hearted humility. He turned to the white-dominated sport or rugby and made the players and their followers his friends.

“We adopted a motto, ‘One team, one country,’ because we realized that this competition was for everyone in South Africa and to do well in this competition would make everyone in South Africa proud,” Pienaar says. “We underestimated how proud he could make South Africa.”

The world saw how a united South Africa was able to stage a big international sports event and, despite fears about its alarming crime rate in the big cities, followed that up successfully with the cricket World Cup and last year’s Confederations Cup football tournament.

Now, South African rugby fans who are from Afrikaner and English backgrounds have swung their allegiances behind the football team for this year’s World Cup. Although Bafana Bafana are outsiders compared with the powerhouse teams such as Brazil, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, England, Argentina, France and defending champion Italy, the South Africans _ from Mandela down to the impoverished people of the townships _ will be cheering them on.

Sentenced to prison because of his anti-apartheid activities, Mandela spent 18 years at Robben Island, just off Cape Town. From that bleak offshore prison, where inmates formed their own leagues and association now with an honorary affiliation to FIFA, it is possible to see the spectacular, 70,000-seat Green Point Stadium, which will stage eight World Cup games.

That in itself is another tribute to Mandela.

South Africa cricketer Ali Bacher was part of a team which was kicked out of the international game because of the government’s apartheid policies. Bacher, who is white, campaigned during the apartheid era for multiracial South African teams and became one of Mandela’s friends and allies.

Now he is confident that stadiums like Green Point will have white and black fans standing side by side supporting their team.

“The Afrikaner community will support the World Cup,” the former South Africa cricket captain said. “It’s been said on quite a few occasions that the Afrikaner has accepted more than the English. The Afrikaner can adapt. He has adapted and accepted black majority rule, which is extraordinary.”

Bacher described how Mandela won over the white Afrikaner and even convinced the ANC party he was right to wear the hated Springbok emblem on his rugby jersey.

“In the old South African setup, only white people were able to wear the Springbok jersey,” Bacher said. “What happened at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, halfway through it, he came out publicly to support the Springbok emblem.

“He said to me: ‘Ali, you and I have been friends for a long time. You know how important the rugby game is. We know how important the Springbok emblem is to white people.’ It was his way of taking the Afrikaner towards supporting him as the first black president. He walked onto that field and there was 95 percent white and many of those in the ground were screaming his name,” Bacher said. “You cannot believe it with Mandela. They love him. A special man.”

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