Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Nelson Mandela proved that sport isn't just a game

Nelson Mandela presents South Africa's Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Trophy in 1995

That oft-quoted, deliberately dismissive line about football – be it rugby, association, gaelic, American, Australian Rules or whatever other version thereof floats your boat – being nothing more than "a lot of grown men chasing a bag of wind around a field" has long amused and annoyed me in equal measure.

The amusement comes from the complainants' comic failure to appreciate the skill involved in players – individually or working together as a team – in getting that 'bag of wind' to go exactly where they want; the annoyance comes from the errant disdain of something they clearly have not begun to understand.

It's on a par to likening Michael Flatley's dancing to 'a bloke moving his feet' or Sir Lawrence Olivier's delivery of lines to 'some guy talking'. It misses the point completely.

Nelson Mandela's death has revived the memory of a moment which proved that rugby football at times can amount to considerably more than 'grown men chasing a bag of wind around a field'.

His passing has given rise to all manner of tributes and a deluge of anecdotes and pictures.

Of the many photographs printed, three in particular stand out: the image of Mandela with his then-wife Winnie as he walked Victor Verster Prison as a free man in February 1990; Mandela and FW de Klerk raising their arms, their hands joined, at the former's presidential inauguration in May 1994; and Mandela presenting South African rugby captain, Francois Pienaar, with the William Webb Ellis trophy after the 1995 World Cup final.

It is the last of those three images that makes total nonsense of that trite line about football being nothing more than "a lot of men chasing a bag of wind around a field".

Of all people, Nelson Mandela knew it was so much more than that. He knew that sport – and in South Africa the sport which counts most is rugby – could be used to unite people in a way politics never could.

He knew that in South Africa of all countries, rugby provides a medium via which national pride can be expressed because it gets inside people's heads, hearts and souls.

That is why the picture of Mandela, wearing a Springboks jersey – the symbol of white supremacy, the hated apartheid system and minority rule – is the most enduring image of all.

He knew what the bottle-green shirt with its orange-gold trimmings represented to the white man. And the black man. He knew the badge with its leaping Springbok was anathema to the latter.

Almost all of his colleagues in the ANC sought to have the Springboks dissolved and they believed their leader shared that wish. They were wrong.

And June 24, 1995 proved just how right – and appreciative of human psychology – Mandela had been in defying them in his pursuit of what he believed to be a better way.

To put it that moment at Ellis Park into a more parochial context, just try to imagine Ian Paisley wearing a Tyrone jersey at St Tiernan's Park and, placing his hand of the shoulder of Ciaran Corr as he presented him with the Anglo-Celt Cup.

Or Martin McGuinness, attired in a Linfield jersey – placing the hand of friendship on the shoulder of David Jeffrey – as he presented him with the Irish Cup at Windsor Park.

On Sunday night on television I saw Francois Pienaar stop as he fought back tears in trying to explain what that gesture by President Mandela had meant not only to him as the Springboks' skipper, but to all the citizens of the Rainbow Nation and the watching world. Even now, more than 18 years on, that gesture stopped him in his tracks.

He admitted he had not tried to sing Nkosi Sikelel Afrika and Die Stem van Suid-Afrika because he knew he was already choking back tears given what his president had just done in appearing in a Boks shirt number six – his number.

"A lot of grown men chasing a bag of wind around a field"? Think again, if you believe that.

Using rugby – the white man's game – as his vehicle, Nelson Mandela confirmed it as a force for good when used properly.

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