South Africa's Springbok, rugby team captain John Smit, right, hold's the William Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup trophy with former South African President Nelson Mandela, center, and coach Jake White, left, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007. Former President Nelson Mandela on Saturday thanked the Springboks for their outstanding performance in France and for bringing the trophy home to South Africa. The shirts that the team are wearing refer to Nelson Mandela's prison number.(AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)
Mandela understood sports to be a powerful unifier, which is why he backed the Springboks, South Africa’s (long reviled) national rugby team, during its surprise run in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And it’s why Mandela was instrumental in helping his country land the 2010 World Cup. Sports can supersede all other differences, perceived or recognized, and in commemoration of Mandela Day, it’s worth revisiting Wright Thompson’s classic 2008 piece (for ESPN the Magazine) which examined what the World Cup meant for South Africa:
As the members of the [Springboks] dressed for the final match, they looked up to find Mandela standing in the locker room. He’d come to offer the support of all of South Africa. Some of the players, including some who’d grown up believing Mandela was a terrorist, were overcome with emotion. During the national anthem, Pienaar bit his lip so hard that blood trickled down his chin. He did not want to cry. And when the locals won, Pienaar looked up to see Mandela walking onto the field in a Springboks jersey—Pienaar’s Springboks jersey. As the president hugged the player, the 65,000 mostly white fans did what actually had been a crime just a few years before: They spoke Mandela’s name in public. Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son! Later, people told of seeing hard-line apartheiders standing in front of their televisions and chanting along with the crowd.
“In goal, you’re taking in all the movement, all the runs,” Howard said. “You see everything. You’re yelling. You’re tense. You’re so wired-in. To tell you the truth, I don’t enjoy the game—I’ve never actually had fun within the course of those ninety minutes.” Because the object is always a shutout—a “clean sheet,” as the British call it—he can never relax. “As long as there’s time on the clock, there’s still danger,” he says. “When the whistle blows, I’m completely exhausted, physically and mentally. I get in the locker room and I sit down and I just exhale. Finally, the danger is over.”
In 2009, Brazil introduced “one of the boldest experiments in policing ever witnessed in the democratic world”—the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or UPP—to rid its poorest neighborhoods from the grip of drug traffickers and violent militias before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics:
‘Everybody in Rio knew – every taxi driver, every senator, every sociologist and every journalist,’ he says with a hint of controlled anger. ‘They all knew that Rio was a divided city. But for 40 years, nobody did a single thing about it.’
The favelas, Beltrame argues, were islands from which the state had just decided to absent itself. Their residents were forgotten and ignored, stewing in a toxic juice of extreme poverty, domestic violence and, from the late 1980s onwards, the omnipotence of Uzi-wielding drug cartels or their vigilante alter-egos, the militias, who specialise in blackmailing entire communities. Regular police raids peppered by arbitrary killings and extortion ensured that favela residents regarded the state not as an ally, but perhaps as their worst enemy.
Appalled by this collective inaction and the stain on the city’s reputation, Beltrame decided to do something about it. In times past, he would have struggled to receive the backing from the governor of Rio state to divert public funds into the favelas. But with the World Cup and Olympics looming, the moment for the UPP had come.