The Picture Every World Cup Fan Wants To See: Nelson Mandela Smiling

Neal CollinsAnalyst IMay 6, 2010

This is the picture the world has been waiting for, and what a joy it is.

Released in Johannesburg today by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and snapped by Debbie Yazbek, it shows Madiba, the beloved father of the Rainbow Nation, smiling with the World Cup as it arrives in South Africa for a nationwide pre-tournament journey.

For weeks—months—Mandela has been quiet. There were those who said the first democratic president of South Africa at age 91 was too frail to talk when fascist leader Eugene Terreblanche was killed on his farm in Ventersdorp a month ago.

There were those who said Mandela couldn't be trusted to verbally spank African National Congress youth leader Julius Malema when he was winding up the white minority, singing songs about "killing the boer."

But with one image, Mandela is back. Smiling.

And in the space of a toothy grin, the World Cup is on track.

Though President Jacob Zuma has dealt well with pre-tournament problems—he spoke with authority on the sodomy-tainted death of Terreblanche, and slapped down the mischievous Malema with some aplomb—it is the voice of Mandela which is trusted here by black, white, brown, and blue.

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He is the man whose release stirred the world, the superhero who emerged from 27 years of imprisonment to guide the country through its first democratic elections in 1994, the father of freedom who inspired Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated Invictus is BACK.

I was told some months ago that FIFA has a contingency plan in place in the event of Rolihlahla Mandela's death before the start of the World Cup on June 11. It involves him lying in state in Pretoria, like a latter-day pharaoh, ready for eternal adoration.

We feared for his faculties, but we all knew it was Mandela who persuaded Sepp Blatter, FIFA, and the football-speaking world to bring the World Cup to Africa for the first time this year.

How tragic would it be if he had gone just weeks before the big kick-off?

As Jerome Valcke, the FIFA secretary general said today: "For us there was no way that the trophy would arrive in the country and not being brought first to Mandela. Nelson Mandela was one of the architects of this FIFA World Cup."

To Mandela's left in the picture above is Danny Jordaan, an anti-apartheid activist who has risen to the top in sporting politics. He flanked the former president and Nobel prize winner, as he admired the gold-and-malachite trophy that has been on a 134,014-kilometre (83,272-mile) world tour that stopped in every African country ahead of the June 11 kickoff of the continent's first World Cup.

Now, the trophy will go on a crusade to 38 South African cities, with Khayelitsah, near Cape Town, the first stop.

Though we have no record of Mandela's fragile thoughts, Jordaan said: "It was so wonderful seeing Madiba (Mandela's clan name) in Zurich on the day South Africa won the right to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, so happy, with tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. It is an emotional and joyful moment to be back bringing the trophy to him."

And in Johannesburg, where I wandered the streets today in a suit with thousands of pounds worth of electrical gadgets in my bag, there is no sign of the crime and danger the British press are predicting for this World Cup.

Just smiles and very helpful locals showing me the way to get around.

All in the spirit of Madibe.

And as I walked through Nelson Mandela square in Sandton, where a four-metre golden statue of Africa's greatest statesman smiles down on the world, I said a little prayer for Madiba.

Stick with us through this one, Mr. Mandela.

The Rainbow Nation is about to reach the pot of gold.

Who is Neal Collins and how can he speak with any authority about such weighty issues? See and feel free to air your views.