Sports figures around the world showed their love for Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero’s 95th birthday.
At the British Open, Tiger Woods talked about the unique energy Mandela exuded when they first met, while some of South Africa’s biggest sports stars proudly tweeted pictures of their own encounters with the adored former president.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter today wrote to Mandela to wish him a happy birthday and thank him for “championing” the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and Premier League club Manchester City will play a game in his honour.
“Today we remember your courageous fight against oppression and the inspirational example you set to others who are battling injustice,” Blatter wrote in his message. “May this message transmit to you all the energy, strength and goodwill of the football community as you continue your recovery from illness.”
The aging Mandela remains hospitalised for a recurring lung infection, but his birthday coincided with a statement from President Jacob Zuma, saying his health was improving.
Mandela’s unifying legacy pervades nearly all sports.
Woods, who is playing at the British Open in Scotland, said his “amazing” 1998 meeting with Mandela was an experience he would “never, ever forget” and recounted the visit with his late father to the then-South African president’s Johannesburg home.
Mandela’s inspirational appearances at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995 and football’s Africa Cup of Nations final a year later are as much a part of the country’s sporting heritage as its winning teams on those days – maybe more.
His advanced years and numerous visits to the hospital recently have left South Africans fearing for their ailing father figure, but sportsmen and sportswomen joined the opportunity to celebrate his birthday.
A list of stars paid tribute, some affectionately referring to Mandela by his clan name Madiba, others using “Tata,” which means father.
“Happy birthday #Madiba,” Bryan Habana, one of South Africa’s top rugby players, wrote on Twitter. “As a nation we salute you and keep you in our prayers!”
Habana also posted a photograph of himself and team-mates with a smiling Mandela on a previous birthday.
Olympic swimming champions Cameron van der Burgh and Kirsty Coventry, who is from Zimbabwe, former rugby captain John Smit and former cricket captain Shaun Pollock all posted messages, as did Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, who wrote: “Big happy birthday to my hero TaTa Madiba.”
A South African football magazine put together a montage of photographs of what it called Mandela’s iconic football moments, including him grinning gleefully and holding the World Cup when South Africa won the right to host, and another with former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.
One image, from Ethiopia and at the bottom of the collection, shows a banner hoisted by local fans during a fiercely contested recent football World Cup qualifier against South Africa. Despite the intense battle on the field, the Ethiopian supporters in their striped team shirts stand in front of a huge sign that reads: “We Love Mandela!! We Will Always Be At Your Side.”
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