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Whoever wins, a Triumph for Mandela’s Spirit

2010 June 10
by sfcg

By Rob Hughes

From the New York Times

JOHANNESBURG — Everyone is here for the soccer, but let’s not pretend this is going to be like any World Cup ever before. The stakes are raised tenfold. This may be the 19th soccer World Cup in 80 years, but it’s the first to be held on this continent.

An event of this magnitude and cost, so demanding on the resources of the host nation, was unimaginable in Africa until now. And in South Africa, which 20 years ago was still barred from international sports because of its racist apartheid policies, this would have been unthinkable while Nelson Mandela was still behind bars.

Mandela said 20 years ago that soccer was the game of the townships, the game some of his fellow prisoners on Robben Island played to keep themselves sane. And it’s the game he wanted to see on his soil in its grandest form — the World Cup — before he died.

Indeed, he begged for it. He went to Zurich not once but twice to use his influence and his legacy to persuade FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, to bring its gargantuan, 32-nation, 64-game circus to South Africa.

Trust us, he told the officials, we have the human resources, even in this once-broken land, to safely host the month-long global soccer showpiece.

There is hope that he will attend the opening match on Friday and the final on July 11. That, given Mandela’s frail health, might require him to summon every last ounce of fortitude in his 91-year-old body.

What history that would make. Both games are at Soccer City, the same giant stadium between Soweto and Johannesburg where Mandela, prisoner 46664, made his first public speech after his release following 27 years as a political prisoner. An estimated 85,000 people filled the stadium that day, on Feb. 13, 1990. On Friday, there will be an expected 94,700 in the renovated stadium to watch South Africa kick off the tournament against Mexico.

This dwarfs the magnitude of the rugby union World Cup in 1995, soccer’s African Cup of Nations in 1996 and the cricket World Cup in 2003, which all were part of Mandela’s use of sports as a tool of reconciliation.

The soccer World Cup will strain every facet of South African life, test every aspect of co-operation between the public and private sectors to keep this show running and to keep it safe. It goes far beyond who wins and who loses, and beyond our fascination with whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, or possibly this time an African — Samuel Eto’o or Didier Drogba, if he plays despite injury — shows himself to be the finest player in a team game.

Get the next 31 days right and it will add to Mandela’s already great legacy. It might also cement that of Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, who put his own leadership on the line by urging everyone to believe that Africa’s time had come.

“We have practically a moral obligation toward African football and the African people,” Blatter said. Ever since, his mantra has been: “The victor is football. The victor is Africa.”

The sentiment is commendable, yet there is an implicit contradiction. The world has come to play in a land where unparalleled beauty coexists with unspeakable poverty and where 50 human beings are murdered daily.

There are 10 new or newly renovated stadiums that might soon be obsolete, overpriced white elephants towering over the teeming township slums. But there are also highways, high-speed trains and modern airports built to cope with 400,000 World Cup visitors and to carry longed-for tourism into the future.

So perhaps soccer is driving hope, working as a catalyst toward restructuring the new South Africa?

Bidding for the World Cup outlasted Mandela’s span as the country’s president. In fact, three heads of state — Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma — have seen the process through to reality. One man, however, has driven the bid from beginning to end: Danny Jordaan.

Jordaan is the chief executive of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup organization. He has sustained the effort throughout the process, pursuing the goal with determination and stamina.

“I have no doubt,” he said last month, “this will be the most unifying moment in South African history. We did not have walls or wars like East and West Germany had, but we had separation of people, black and white.”

Such lofty rhetoric is rare from Jordaan. He has long been known to leave the oratory to the presidents. His tenacity has been matched by a watchfulness, a wariness, born of knowing that careless words could cost precious votes. The word most often heard from him is hope — hope for a fairer chance in South Africa than previous generations got under apartheid.

Another phrase he often uses, learned no doubt from Mandela: “You have to be magnanimous.” He repeated it on the BBC the other day when asked how the majority of South Africans can forgive what they endured under white minority rule.

Jordaan does not have Mandela’s charisma, his easy eloquence, his “Madiba magic.” Who else in this world does?

But he knows who will be held accountable if anything goes disastrously wrong at this World Cup. It was Mandela’s dream, but it is Jordaan’s responsibility.

Read the rest of the article here.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Gaurav permalink
    June 18, 2010

    for starters, you might want to spell Mandela’s name right in the heading.

    • sfcg permalink
      June 24, 2010

      Thanks, Gaurav, for pointing that out. Oops!

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