In 2007, scheduled as one of Mandela's main 89th birthday celebration events, some 35 000 people gathered at the Newlands Rugby Stadium in wintry Cape Town to celebrate Mandela's birthday by watching a spectacularly unusual soccer match between a star-studded World XI and an African XI.
It was called the '90 Minutes for Mandela' tribute match and was a fundraiser under the FIFA 'Say No to Racism' banner, regarded as a key Mandela cause. FIFA introduced the anti-racism campaign in 2006 to combat the growing problem of players enduring racist taunts from fans, particularly in Europe, though South African teams have also endured similar slurs.
The day before the kick-off Mandela was presented with the official jersey for the match with his name and the number 89 on the back. It featured his prison number on the front — 46664 — which highlights his campaign to raise global awareness about HIV/AIDS.
Mandela said he was deeply honoured by FIFA's tribute but modestly pointed out that 'it must always be remembered that I was one of many who fought for freedom from tyranny and racism'. The teams embodied the 'Say No to Racism' theme with the African team wearing white and their opponents black.
The match honoured the formation of a soccer league by Robben Island prisoners when Mandela was on the prison island, the Makana Football Association, which adopted FIFA rules. Nelson Mandela watched their games from his prison cell because his jailers did not want him to mix with the players. Later they built a wall to stop him watching.
On the day of the match, FIFA's Vice-President Jack Warner conferred honorary FIFA membership on the club. Thanking FIFA, Nelson Mandela responded in a recorded message broadcast on a giant screen, 'During the dark years of our incarceration, the association drew together all the prisoners on the island around the beautiful game of soccer.
In this way it helped uphold the values of inclusiveness and reconciliation, and of non-racialism and peace that are still dear to all of us today.' He went on, 'This match is more than just a game; it symbolises the power of football to bring people together from all over the world, regardless of the language they speak or the colour of their skin.'
66 year-old Brazilian football legend Pele ceremoniously kicked off for the World XI, 30 years after retiring from the sport. He spoke of being honoured to take part in proceedings because he had learnt many life lessons from Mandela. 'We must continue to fight in honour of Mr Mandela against racism and discrimination,' he said.
Liberian George Weah, a former world player of the year also known for his failed bid to become the President of Liberia declared, 'I am a son of Mandela. He has inspired me and fought for our continent.
He inspired millions all over the world'; while 45-year-old, former European Player of the Year, Dutch striker Ruud Gullit said the lesson from Mandela's life was that 'there is always hope. If you believe in yourself and fight hard for the right thing, you will succeed.' The result was a three-goal-all draw.