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Today is the 93rd birthday of a true hero, Nelson Mandela. Although it is hard for one image to sum up his many achievements and his dignity, I would choose the famous picture of Francois Pienaar receiving the rugby World Cup from Mandela in 1995.

John Carlin, author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, beautifully explains its significance :

Mandela’s coup de grâce, the final submission of white South Africa to his charms, came minutes before the final itself when the old terrorist-in-chief went on to the pitch to shake hands with the players dressed in the colours of the ancient enemy, the green Springbok shirt.

For a moment, Ellis Park Stadium, 95 per cent white on the day, stood in dumb, disbelieving silence. Then someone took up a cry that others followed, ending in a thundering roar: “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!”

And that was almost it. White South Africa had crowned Mandela king with the fervour black South Africa had done five years earlier at a stadium in Soweto, in the week after his release. (The Telegraph)

– Mandela’s birthday also reminded me of a fantastic  article in National Geographic last year  on what the football World Cup meant to South Africa which included truly inspiring stories of reconciliation between individuals still dealing with the legacies of apartheid;

– as confirmation of how things have thankfully changed: in 1988 in South Africa the government banned all outdoor events that had been scheduled to commemorate Mandela’s 70th birthday (The New Yorker);

– John Campbell, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria and political counselor at the US embassy in Pretoria during the end of apartheid writes that South Africa’s first post-apartheid president may have given the country the tools to find greatness :

Mandela’s vision for his country, which reflects his great strength of character, is based on the inherent dignity of men and women of all races. His courage shares similarities with that of Abraham Lincoln during the American civil war. His inclusiveness toward the Afrikaners that jailed him for 27 years shows an extraordinary generosity of spirit that recalls Martin Luther King. And his dogged determination and high political skills remind us of Winston Churchill in Britain’s finest hour. Perhaps above all, Mandela illustrates the crucial role of individual leadership in state-building. And, like Lincoln, Churchill, and King, Mandela has been remarkably successful in securing the support of his fellow citizens for his vision — in Mandela’s case, a “non-racial” democracy. (The Atlantic)

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Nelson Mandela:

“The 2010 Fifa World Cup is more than just a game: it symbolises the power of football to bring people together from all over the world, regardless of language, the colour of one’s skin, political or religious persuasion.”

I have been counting down the days to the World Cup for the last four years and the opening day has reminded me why I love the tournament so much.

This week I have been visiting friends in Vancouver and due to the time difference the first game was at seven this morning.

I am well-known for not being a morning person but I found myself waking up early on vacation to watch the match and am really glad I did. South Africa scored a spectacular goal in a dream start to the first African tournament. The dream was almost realised as South Africa came close to winning in the 89th minute but even though that didn’t happen it was still great to watch the enthusiasm of the fans.

One of my favourite things about the World Cup is finding yourself cheering for (some) other teams when your own isn’t involved and I found myself shouting for South Africa – luckily my friends were out of the house taking their kids to school so I didn’t embarrass myself too much.

However this won’t be the case tomorrow when England play their first game as I will either go crazy when we win or cry if we lose. To get in the mood for the match this is my favourite England World Cup song – World in Motion by New Order from back in 1990:

And a few other World Cup links:

Nike’s latest World Cup ad;

– although I prefer the Star Wars inspired ad from Adidas;

New Yorker piece on Everton and US goalie Tim Howard and how he believes having Tourette’s Syndrome has helped his game;

National Geographic’s fab article, Mandela’s Children, highlighting the importance of the tournament to South Africa;

– a reminder of the last time England played the US in the World Cup (I am keeping my fingers crossed that history doesn’t repeat itself).

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As I have written before the World Cup, which starts a week today, is my favourite sporting event because you truly feel like you are participating in a global phenomenon. This year’s event is even more special as it is the first to be hosted by Africa, and for what it means to South Africa.

This article in National Geographic describes the World Cup as a turning point :

“South Africa’s selection to host the 2010 World Cup gave people a surge of confidence. Their nation could now be remembered for bringing the world soccer rather than apartheid.”

However it was the stories of individuals still dealing with the legacies of apartheid which made me cry. In particular, a meeting between a former white supremacist Daniel Stephanus Coetzee  and one victim of his bombing, Olga Macingwane:

“The interview goes on for two hours. Finally, Olga Macingwane gets to her feet. Unusually, she is fighting with her emotions. She says, “Stefaans, when I see you, I see my sister’s son in you, and I cannot hate you.” She extends her arms. “Come here, boy,” she says in Xhosa. Coetzee walks into her embrace. “I forgive you,” Macingwane says softly. “I have heard what you said, and I forgive you.” “

There are other inspirational voices in the piece who make you optimistic that South Africa will be able to live up to  Nelson Mandela‘s vision of a rainbow nation. Marjorie Jobson, national director of the Khulumani Support Group, an organisation of 58,000 victims of political violence, mainly during the apartheid era, who says:

“I think they just wanted apartheid to go away and the government to fix everything. But that didn’t happen. It’s up to each individual South African to participate actively in restitution. You know, the power of one. The power one person has to perpetuate our violent past, or the power one person has to contribute to a just, peaceful society.”

Or Tshepo Madlingozi, who arranges the meeting between Coetzee and Macingwane. He says:

“Meeting Stefaans has reignited my faith in the future of South Africa.  My worldview is black consciousness, and that hasn’t changed as a result of knowing Stefaans. But it has made me appreciate that even the most ardent racists—even murderers—can change and be humble. Yes, Stefaans’s intelligence, humility, acute appreciation of the consequences of his actions and the system of apartheid, as well as his appreciation that reconciliation is not merely about showing goodwill, have greatly inspired me.”

As much as I want to see England win the World Cup, in this case I won’t mind if they don’t if the tournament is even half as successful as the 1995 Rugby World Cup when the sight of Mandela in a Springbok shirt united blacks and whites into one nation.

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