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'Mandela had the ability to make anyone he met feel special'

ICON: Nelson Mandela

"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. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers." - Nelson Mandela.

If ever I am asked about the redemptive power of football I think about the ANC in South Africa and a ball of rolled up newspapers and rags. That was what the political prisoners of Robben Island initially used to play the game with when they set up the Makana F.A in 1966. They organised leagues, ran 27 teams, adhered to strict FIFA rules, had officials and compiled league tables.

In another part of the prison, banned from taking part or even watching the matches was one Nelson Mandela. He never forgot the affect the game had on his fellow inmates. Indeed he declared later “Football was the only joy to prisoners”.

Just a few hours after Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black President in 1994 he went to watch his country play Zambia. After a goalless first half he went on to the pitch at Ellis Park and delivered a team talk.

The result? Bafana Bafana scored a minute into the second half and went on to win the game 2-1. If only coaching was that easy!

I was reminded of this because Mandela- The Official Exhibition has opened in London and I would urge anyone who cares about equality, justice and the power of sport to go and see it.

Who can forget that day in 1995 when Nelson Mandela wore the Springbok shirt as his country’s rugby side – until then associated with the ruling class – won the World Cup against the mighty All Blacks.It is a moment credited with the being the birth of the “Rainbow Nation”.

A year later Nelson Mandela is at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg as his beloved Bafana Bafana win the African Cup of Nations for the first time. Former Charlton player Mark Fish was in the team that day: “I remember him dancing with us on the pitch after the final and lifting the trophy. He was so happy, he was beaming”

It is fitting that the exhibition has come to our capital; despite the British government at one stage deciding that he was a “terrorist” , on the streets of our country there was a lot of support for the Anti -Apartheid Movement and the news of the demonstrations and protests were relayed to Mandela- sometimes in code- to his cell on Robben Island.

I was particularly taken with Walter Sisulu – the Deputy President of the ANC at that time -who came a few times to Lambeth Council when I was CEO and was keen to help promote our Anti-apartheid Charter. I took him around local estates to see what was happening in education and housing.

A few years later I had the great privilege of meeting the man himself.

In fact I met Nelson Mandela on three occasions and i have to say that his humility and graciousness stands out way and above anyone else I have ever met. Greatness is a word applied too readily and easily nowadays to describe even people of little or no stature or significance. Mandela was truly great, not only for all he achieved and experienced but because he had that incredible ability to make anyone he met feel special.

Just imagine, when tremblingly, I shook the hand of this truly iconic legend he told me that it was his great pleasure to meet me! Yes, I felt great momentarily and unforgettably, but the reality is that he did the same for everyone he met.

I have heard that the BBC’s former Johannesburg Bureau chief- Milton Nkosi – tells the story that every time Mandela saw him he’d always jokingly ask “Hey Milton- remember me?”

He was a hero for millions. But who did Mandela describe as his hero? Lucas Radebe. A footballer for Kaiser Chiefs, Bafana Bafana and while in this country, Leeds United.

When Mandela’s advocacy won his country the right to stage the football World Cup, he was 85 but, he said “I feel like a young man of 15.” At the final in 2010 – the first ever held in Africa- he appeared on the pitch again- a few days before his 92nd birthday -noticeably frail but with a smile that lit up Johannesburg.

The joke was that he’d passed a late fitness test to be there. It was viewed as the coming of age of the new nation. It was also the last time he was seen in public.

There was no-one like him. If you can, go to the Exhibition and find out why everyone – not just in the world of football- owes him a debt of gratitude.

Mandela: The Official Exhibition is on at 26 Leake Street Gallery near Waterloo Station in London until June 2
Tickets :

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