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When Pele and Eto’o met Mandela

FIFA recently celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday with a gala match. Stars from all over the world flocked to Cape Town to pay tribute to one of the most important persons the world has ever known.
The world’s two most instantly recognisable men are deep in conversation when Pele suddenly jumps to his feet. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but my mother told me I had to do this,” he tells his host, Nelson Mandela. And then, with the same swift dexterity that he showed in his playing career, the 67-year-old Brazilian winner of three FIFA World Cup™ titles springs to his feet, moves across the room and plants a firm kiss on the forehead of the former South African president.
While Pele was obeying the instructions of his mother, Dona Celeste, he was also fulfilling the wish of hundreds of millions of people who see Mandela as a saintly symbol of peace, justice and reconciliation. The queue of those who also want to plant a peck on the beaming face of the freedom fighter would arguably stretch around the world several times.
In South Africa, Mandela is seen as the architect of a new society that has risen out of the ashes of apartheid and centuries of racial tension and animosity. His own personal example of forgiveness for the jailers who kept him behind bars for 27 years resonated worldwide and made him an icon well beyond the country’s borders.
Mandela’s accession to power, in South Africa’s first free democratic elections in 1994, heralded a new dawn that took the country from a pariah state with economic and social sanctions to a model world citizen playing a keen part in international affairs.
South Africa could have slipped into civil tension, even conflict, but the guiding hand of Mandela, outstretched to both friend and foe, ensured a seamless transition of power on a continent where power had only previously passed through
the barrel of a gun.
Almost two decades on, South Africa is booming, its economy on the boil, its citizens emboldened with opportunity and its future bright with possibility. The symbolic figure of that future is now the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, the next application of glue on a previously fragile society that Mandela first stuck together. Sport was always acknowledged by Mandela as an integral part of building a new South Africa. He won over the sceptical Afrikaners when he donned the rugby jersey of the Springboks to support the winning team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
A year later, he was dressed in football colours as South Africa’s national team, Bafana Bafana, took the Africa Cup of Nations trophy on home soil. He danced a merry jig on the side of the pitch in celebration, his infectious enthusiasm and beaming face reflecting the joy of a country united in sporting success.
Ten years later, he wept tears of joy on the stage of the Zurich World Trade Center as FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter named South Africa as the hosts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Moments later, Mandela was on his feet, waving the World Cup trophy in the air like the triumphant captain of a winning team.
The elder statesman, despite his advanced age and failing health, flew thousands of miles to help the country’s campaign, cajoling political and football leaders worldwide, and he was never found wanting whenever South Africa’s bid committee sought his invaluable assistance.
Fittingly, football paid homage to Mandela with FIFA’s celebration of his 89,h birthday in Cape Town on 18 July. A gala game featuring some of the world’s greatest stars enthralled the crowd and gave the country a taste of the festival of joy that the FIFA World Cup™ will bring in less than three years’ time.
The “90 Minutes for Mandela” match also addressed several of the themes with which the former South African president is synonymous and which FIFA has at the forefront of its social agenda, such as the “Say No to Racism” campaign and the “Football for Hope” initiative. Players kicked 89 balls against racism into a goal on a football pitch at Robben Island, the former prison where Mandela was incarcerated for more than two decades.
Mandela has made it patently clear on more than one occasion that he sees the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ as another major milestone that will contribute to a prosperous future for all of South Africa’s citizens. It is an event that has galvanised the country into collective action as it battles against crime, poverty and inequality. Both the physical and mental building blocks that the FIFA World Cup™ will force upon the country will give new impetus to the continuing work in the construction of a new South Africa and fulfilling Mandela’s dream.
Samuel Eto’o, who set aside pre-season preparations with Barcelona to travel to meet Mandela and play in the game, put it best when he proclaimed his desire to meet Mandela again at the FIFA World Cup™ in 2010. “We hope his health remains good and that he can be part of the first World Cup in Africa,” said the Cameroon international, who was quick to follow Pele’s lead in kissing Mandela!