It was on his inauguration day in 1994 that the concept of ‘Madiba Magic’ was born – the winning influence that Nelson Mandela engendered whenever he went to watch a South African sports team.
A soccer international against Zambia had been organised at Ellis Park in Johannesburg to celebrate the transition of power on May 10, 1994 but the South Africans were outplayed by their guests through a goalless first half in front of a 50,000 strong crowd on a day of celebration.
The ceremonies marking the handover of power had overrun at the Union Buildings in nearby Pretoria, meaning he missed the kick off but a massive roar was heard when his helicopter was seen overhead and Mandela emerged on the pitch at half-time.
Both teams were asked to line up again, as they had done in the pre-match formalities, and the break ran well over the standard 15 minutes as the new president was introduced to players and officials.
The effect was immediately both inspiring and intimidatory.
“The half-time was probably closer to 30 minutes than 15 but his presence electrified the stadium and energised the players,” recalled goalkeeper Steve Crowley in an interview with Reuters on Friday, just hours after Mandela’s death aged 95.
South Africa scored two goals within two minutes of the restart and went on to record their first ever win over an opponent who had previously held the upper hand over them.
“It was our most significant game then in international competition,” Crowley added.
The mesmerising impact was quickly dubbed ‘Madiba Magic’ by the South African media. Madiba was Mandela’s clan name and often used as a honorific to hail him or refer to him.
The power of the magic was no better exemplified than one year later at the same venue when South Africa beat New Zealand with a iconic extra-time drop goal to win the Rugby World Cup.
Mandela’s arrival on the field in a Springbok jersey before the match stunned the crowd, mostly made up of whites, some of whom still antagonistically waving the flag of the old Apartheid regime from the stands.
Within minutes his name was being chanted by a crowd seduced by the symbolism of a black president in the controversial colours of a team previously reserved for whites only.
Mandela took to wearing sporting uniforms frequently after that and for South Africa’s only major football success he was clad in the country’s colours as they won the 1996 African Nations Cup finals.
‘Madiba Magic’ was also used to seduce the members of Fifa’s executive committee to help South Africa secure the rights to host the 2010 World Cup.
A beaming Mandela, by then no longer president, clasped his hands above his head like a prize fighter and then cradled the trophy like baby after South Africa was awarded the contest in Zurich 11 years ago.
It was hoped his last ever public appearance ahead of the opening game of the 2010 World Cup at Johannesburg’s Soccer City would create the same effect. He looked frail as he waved to the crowd from the back of a golf cart.
South Africa’s Siphiwe Tshabalala then scored with a stunning left-footed drive to give Bafana Bafana the lead but after Mandela left the stadium early to return home on a bitterly cold night, Mexico grabbed a late equaliser.