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Nelson Mandela.

Heroic figure Nelson Mandela also united South Africa through sport

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Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela at the World Cup
Nelson Mandela at the World Cup

The Long Walk is over for Nelson Mandela and it seems everyone has a story to tell about the great South African leader, even the top sportsmen and women in the world.

Watching sport pay tribute to Mandela has been quite moving in recent days as the likes of Gary Player, Ernie Els and Francois Pienaar spoke of the effect Madiba had on their lives and their country.

There is no doubt – as the Clint Eastwood movie Invictus clearly indicates – that Mandela united South Africa with his own support for their team when the rainbow nation hosted the 1995 rugby World Cup.

There’s also no doubt -- and I know this from personal experience of the event -- that the 2010 soccer World Cup would never have succeeded when it made it to South African shores without Mandela’s support and encouragement.

Whilst he may have brought a white man’s game into black homes at the time of the 1995 rugby tournament, an event that helped transform post-apartheid South Africa, it was soccer’s World Cup that really united his people.

Soccer is the common sport for all South Africans, a sport played by all and a sport loved by all its people, regardless of their color, creed or background.

That their country hosted the 31 best teams in the world – and the cheating French – at the 2010 World Cup did more for the South African psyche than even winning the rugby version had done in 1995.

I saw that much at first hand in the Johannesburg guest house that became my home from home for the six weeks spent on World Cup duty four years ago.

Our quarters were run by an intriguing lady called Sally Roper who works as a writer, tourism consultant and innkeeper, often at the same time.

Sally’s housekeeper, for want of a better name, was a wonderful woman by the name of Nkele who travelled from Soweto every day to look after our culinary needs in leafy Craighall Park.

Nkele was proud to talk to us about her South Africa during our six week sojourn in her country, and never prouder than the day Madiba declared the 2010 World Cup finals open and South Africa drew 1-1 with Mexico in the opening game.

On the morning of that match, Nkele was like an excited child on Christmas morning over breakfast in our Buckingham b’n’b.

Her pride was as radiant as the early morning sunshine that June day.  At the time I wrote, on these very pages, of the experience.

And it went like this:

Nkele took her usual two hour journey to work in Johannesburg on Friday – but with a smile on her face and the South African flag painted onto both cheeks.

The 42-year-old is the housekeeper at the Craighall Park guest house, and she’s big into the World Cup.

That much was evident ever since arrival here late on Tuesday night, but the impact this tournament is having on the ordinary South Africans finally became clear yesterday.

There was a real bounce in her step as she burst through the breakfast room door at 8:30 a.m. complete with Bafana Bafana hat and jersey.

“Today I finally feel we belong to the world,” she beamed as the smile on her face barely managed to get through the double door.

“When I left my township this morning everyone was on the streets with their Vuvuzelas and their Bafana Bafana colors.

“We belong now. No matter what happens to the boys in the World Cup our people are now on the world stage.

“It is like the real unification of our country, of all our colors and all our cultures.”

It was only a small breakfast room in a Johannesburg suburb but there was a real sense of occasion when Nkele produced those words yesterday morning.

Those same words came to life on the hour long journey out to Soccer City in Soweto as the queues grew and the noise from the beloved Vuvuzelas reached a crescendo.

South Africa may not win another match in this tournament but that really doesn’t matter for Nkele and her people.

This World Cup is about so much more than football. Those of us who take football for granted are slowly starting to realize that.

Those words from 2010 deserved a search this week and a repeat performance as a people came to terms with the loss of their greatest leader.

Nelson Mandela was an old man at that tournament. When he did appear in public at the final, swathed in blankets and on the back of a golf buggy, it was almost like he had to be seen to be there when the world came to celebrate its greatest sport in his land.

His presence was clear throughout that World Cup however, a presence that many better qualified to discuss than me put so eloquently this week.

There were many great tales recounted, tales of his time with the South African team at the aforementioned rugby World Cup, tales of his visits to Dublin.

And there’s the great tale of thousands of Irish soccer fans chanting “Ooh aah Paul McGrath, that’s Paul McGrath’s da,” when he appeared in Dublin just hours before the Irish soccer arrived home from Italia ’90.

Ernie Els and Gary Player paid their own tributes at the Nedbank Challenge in Sun City on Sunday. The South African cricket team bowed their heads in his honor the same day.

The world will no doubt pause and reflect when he goes to his eternal reward on Sunday.

And I will think of Nkele and the smile on her face, the rainbow flag on her cheekbones and that incredible day in 2010 when the world and South Africa danced together -- thanks to Nelson Mandela.

He once said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

We saw that for ourselves four years ago in Johannesburg and Cape Town and Soweto and Durban and Rustenberg. May he rest in peace. Finally.

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)

Sideline Views

GAA: The Football Review Committee want to change the geographical make-up of the country now and move beaten teams from Leinster and Ulster into Connacht and Munster for the quarterfinals of the provincial championships. Why don’t they just leave the championships as they are and introduce a Champions League style competition with an open draw in place of the National League and play it in the summer as well? That would be a far more attractive proposition for all concerned.

GOLF: You will read a complaint or two or three from Rory McIlroy elsewhere on this page about the public and media interest in his private life and how he wants it to stop. No chance. It will only stop when Rory is no longer in the public eye – as will the likes of his multi-million dollar deal with Nike. That’s the price of fame Rory, so get used to it . . .

RUGBY: Brian O’Driscoll was just brilliant for Leinster against Northampton in the Heineken Cup on Saturday, so brilliant that the “one more season” calls for the Ireland legend to postpone his retirement will start any day now. In fact, let’s start them here. So how about it Brian, how about one more season in the blue and green jersey???????

BOXING: New immigration laws in Britain have forced Mike Tyson to cancel a promotional tour this week for his one man show, heading this way in the New Year. The Brits couldn’t stop him in the ring – unlike our own Kevin McBride – but they finally got to stop him at passport control. Ironic that.

SOCCER: New manager David Moyes and Manchester United lost again at the weekend, this time to Newcastle United. How long before the taxi for Moyes chant becomes a reality at Old Trafford? Not long, I suspect.

HEROES OF THE WEEK

Connacht were rank outsiders to stay within 20 points of Toulouse in the Heineken Cup in France last Sunday according to the bookies, so you can imagine the shock at their win over the red hot favourites in their own back yard. Considering the Westerners, the poor relations of Irish rugby, could hardly buy a win all season in any competition, it makes their performance all the more heroic.

IDIOTS OF THE WEEK

No matter what their justification, the Celtic fans who damaged a stand at Motherwell let their club down last Friday night. Celtic supporters are known, rightly, as some of the best fans in the world which makes such behavior all the more regrettable and idiotic. Grow up Bhoys!

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