The Eternal Captain: How Mandela Campaigned to Host Africa’s First World Cup

Written By Salvatore Bono

“The people of Africa learnt the lesson of patience and endurance in their long struggle for freedom. May the reward brought by the FIFA World Cup prove that the long wait for its arrival on African soil has been worth it,” Nelson Mandela, 2010.

In the summer of 2004, five years after he left office, Nelson Mandela was told the news that his country would host the World Cup in 2010.

After retiring from politics in 1999, he served one term as his country’s first black president, the man also known as Madiba never stopped campaigning for the love of his country. When AIDS ran rampant through South Africa, he pushed for safe sex among his people. When poverty was still an issue in his beautiful nation, he lobbied other governments for assistance.

When he saw that he could help get Africa’s first World Cup in his backyard, he used his power to show how his continent, his people, his land could host the Beautiful Game and the world’s greatest sporting event.

Guided by Love

Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for trying to liberate South Africa from the Apartheid regime, was a man who loved sport. He was an amateur boxer and clearly loved to fight. While locked away inside Robben Island, he would hear his friends and other inmates playing soccer in the Makana Football Club.

“While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners,” Mandela once said.

In 1994, he became president of South Africa and that same year he formed the Nelson Mandela Challenge, which was a friendly tournament where South Africa would invite countries to compete in a charity soccer match. The money earned would go to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which benefited the kids of the country who were struggling with AIDS or had lost parents due to the disease. The annual tournament was last played in 2015.

A year after he became president of South Africa, the country hosted the Rugby World Cup. Rugby to most South Africans was an Afrikaans sport or in other words – it was a game of the white man. Soccer was a game of the people, a game for everyone.

Mandela famously put on the emerald and gold Springbok uniform and proudly saluted his team and cheered them on as they won the World Cup in 1995. For many in his country, it was a strange gesture since rugby didn’t belong to him nor the people that looked like him. For Mandela, he used rugby as an opportunity to unite his country and show that the game and the tournament was for all – that no matter who you were, you always cheered for your flag.

As the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup, Mandela famously handed the trophy to team captain Francois Pienaar and helped heal and unite a nation separated by systematic racism.

Eight years after rugby’s biggest tournament came to the country, South Africa hosted the Cricket World Cup, but still something was missing.

“Through football, we can celebrate the humanity of the Southern tip of the African continent and share it with the rest of the world,” Madiba once said.

Following the success of the rugby and cricket World Cups, Mandela had his eyes on hosting the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He famously said that soccer is “more than a game,” adding “It can create hope where there was once despair … this game made us feel alive.”

A Tournament for the Ages

“I felt like a young man of 15,” an 85-year-old Mandela said in Switzerland after South Africa won the bid and became the first African nation to host the tournament.

The man who once saw soccer played in prison fields would see it done inside brand new stadiums in his country.

However, like the Rugby World Cup, this wasn’t just a victory for the country; it was a symbolic victory for all Africans. It was to show that the continent, which has been ravaged by imperialism, poor governments, corruption, and disease, could host a global event and succeed.

“Sport has the power to inspire and unite people. In Africa, soccer enjoys great popularity and has a particular place in the hearts of people. That is why it is so important that the FIFA World Cup will, for the first time ever, be hosted on the African continent in 2010. We feel privileged and humbled that South Africa has been given this singular honour of being the African host country,” he said in 2004.

In 2010, after massive amounts of money poured into the project for the construction of new stadiums, timing setbacks, and allegations of bad planning from FIFA, the tournament kicked off and went on without a hitch.

While the home team were knocked out of the tournament in the first round. Bafana Bafana were the ultimate cheerleaders as they joined the spectators supporting the likes of Pirlo, Xavi, Messi, Ronaldo, in the tournament.

The final between Spain and Netherlands drew 24.3 million people who tuned in to watch. It became the most viewed World Cup final and game in history. Almost half the world stopped what they were doing to watch the match, which took place on a cold night in Johannesburg’s brand new Soccer City Stadium.

As Spain were crowned winners, Mandela, wearing a fur hat and coat presented the trophy to La Roja as they won their first World Cup. It was a fitting way to end the tournament as the man who worked so hard to get it in his land for his people passed on the prize.

The soccer world was left silent when Mandela passed in December 2013 at 95.

After his death, FIFA’s then-president, Sepp Blatter said: “It is in deep mourning that I pay my respects to an extraordinary person, probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He and I shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship, and to teach basic social and educational values as a school of life.

“When he was honoured and cheered by the crowd at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium on 11 July 2010, it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced. For him, the World Cup in South Africa truly was ‘a dream come true’. Nelson Mandela will stay in our hearts forever. The memories of his remarkable fight against oppression, his incredible charisma and his positive values will live on in us and with us.”


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