Nelson Mandela, throughout my career all over the world, was a long-distance motivator for me. Whilst enduring the challenges that come with living in Europe with a darker complexion, my mind constantly was reminded that there was a man in South Africa that had endured and was still enduring much greater challenges. The great man inspired me to hold my head up high and forge ahead. He made, and still today makes me proud to be an African.
In Zambia during my youth, the ANC was always talked about in a very hush-hush manner. I don’t think as children, our parents wanted us to know much about all the brave men and women that had taken up exile in our country. However, when it came to Nelson Mandela, great tales were told of this man that was put in jail for the fight against the brutality of apartheid, for the right to be treated as a human being, for the right to be free. We didn’t have a picture of him, we hardly knew what he looked like but we all knew of his courage and determination; he was our hero.
In Belgium and in Holland in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was much debate about apartheid in South Africa. Holland in particular was a melting pot of activists. It was in 1987 when my Dutch colleague, Ruud Gullit won ‘World Footballer of the year’ and dedicated his award to Nelson Mandela that I realized, my hero was a world hero, that there were other people in the world that truly cared for justice and democracy.
When I was 28 and he was released in February 1990 after 27 years, I realized that he had been in jail for almost as long as I’d been alive! What a tragedy I thought with anger. Yet, through all this time, he came out of jail and spoke of peace and harmony, without any bitterness or animosity against his captors He rose above the hardship and suffering and triumphed as a human being. He is an example to the whole of humankind that good overcomes evil – A victory us as Africans were proud of and a victory to be used as an example to the rest of the world
My career later took me to Mexico, where racism was foreign to this friendly Central American country. I got a call from South Africa inviting me to play in the ‘Nelson Mandela Farewell game” - African XI vs. World All Stars XI in honor of the great man. That weekend, I travelled for 2 days for thousands of Kilometers by bus to and from an away game and arrived back in Mexico City at 8am to come to SA. My trip took me from Mexico City to Paris and eventually to Johannesburg. I arrived in South Africa on the morning on the same day of the game. So was the excitement that fatigue was forgotten.
We were invited to have lunch at Sandton Sun on the day of the game and Nelson Mandela arrived to meet us. Each and every one of us was dumbstruck by his presence. I remember one thing in particular: we had lunch, and I was with Jorge Campos and Claudio Suarez from Mexico. They were playing for the world team. When we went to greet the man himself, we asked one of the waiters to take our picture, which he did. On returning to Mexico we found that the picture he had taken was blurred, the waiter must have been shivering so much since Nelson Mandela was in the frame that it was completely out of focus.
This farewell match for the outgoing president of South Africa took place the 17th of August 1999. Coaching the World 11 was current England coach Roy Hodgson and his team included Dunga, Christian Karembeu, Thomas Haessler and Nakata to mention a few. Our African 11 team coached by Jomo Sono had Lucas Radebe, Doc Khumalo, Mark Fish, Phil Masinga. A great line-up for both teams in saluting the great leader in front of 40,000 spectators in the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, one of the nine venues of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. I scored two goals in that match with the second goal in the 89th minute of the game, the match ending at 2-2
During the line-up I clearly remember feeling intense emotions on shaking his hand. I could ‘feel’ his greatness I was humbled to be in his presence. For me, this was not just a football match, but a significant moment in my lifetime, for me this great man epitomized what football should stand for; determination, courage, sacrifice, loyalty, forgiveness, goodwill and fairplay.
In 2003 in Zurich when we all anxiously waited for the announcement of the host of the 2010 World Cup, to which I was an ambassador, where I met him again . We shook hands and he commented that he knew me well and he was my fan. I was bowled over by his humility and kindness. He was MY fan?? I was privileged to be one of the 16 people that were called in to make representation to FIFA on why it should be South Africa to host this prestigious event. I felt very proud to be in the same room as Mandela, I believe that his presence was what ultimately swung the decision in our favour and South Africa was chosen as worthy hosts.
I have read many books about Madiba but one of my favourite quotes is “There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” There is such motivation in those words, so wise and so very true.
I was honored to once again be able to take part - after nearly a decade – in another match to honour this extraordinary man. It showcased some of the best players in the world from the past and present including the likes of Abedi Pele, Doctor Khumalo, George Weah, Samuel Eto, Daniel Amokachi, Ruud Gullit Christian Karembeu, Lucas Radebe to mention but a few. We played in Cape Town on 18 July 2007 in a gala prelude to celebrate the great mans 89th birthday. Uniting the world football family in a ‘90 Minutes for Mandela’ tribute to the man who was instrumental in the decision to bring the FIFA World Cup™ to Africa the first time in 2010.
In my leadership roles as coach and administrator another one of Nelson Mandela’s quotes I try to live by is “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” It is words like these, his wisdom and his largeness of spirit that make him an everlasting icon. He dedicated his lifetime to the promotion of human rights and democracy.
This great man was my motivator throughout my career, in the distance, he was with me all the way. His values in life are exemplary and deserve to be emulated. He remains, my hero and a bastion of hope for Africa and for the entire world.