Print and Go Back ESPN.com: World Cup 2010 [Print without images]

Friday, June 11, 2010
Updated: June 15, 9:09 AM ET
The light must shine on

By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com

JOHANNESBURG -- The sun came up at the start of a beautiful day in Johannesburg, and fast behind it came the news that Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter Zenani was killed in a car crash during the night.

She was 13 years old. She was on her way home from a concert held here Thursday, where she would have heard Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, celebrate the legacy of her 91-year-old great-grandfather.

"Can you feel it?" Tutu had said through a wide smile. "I think we have to pay a wonderful tribute to the man to whom we owe all of this. He is in Johannesburg. And if we make a loud enough noise, he will hear us! Viva Madiba!"

And the crowd cheered long and loud.

It's hard to describe, exactly, the sway Mandela holds over this place. He has become something other than a man for the people of South Africa somehow. He is a spirit.

Before Friday's opening game between Mexico and South Africa at Soccer City, there had been surprisingly little talk about the possible outcome. This country's collective wondering was more occupied with Mandela and whether he would have the strength to attend. He is in his waning years, and his health is poor. But late Thursday, the consensus was that he would be here, that he wouldn't miss this triumph for the world.

Now, he will not be here. He has been knocked off his feet. His former wife, Winnie, was checked into a hospital suffering from shock. For the extended Mandela family -- which, on days when the light is right, can seem to include every South African -- today has become a day of mourning.

The shadow now cast is reminiscent of Vancouver five months ago, when a 21-year-old Georgian bobsledder, Nodar Kumaritashvili, was killed during training in the hours before the Games began.

The feeling in Canada then -- the feeling in South Africa now -- was that the dream had ended, that the hopes of an entire country to put on a good face, to be perfect, had been dashed. For the World Cup to be here means everything to South Africans. They want this tournament, this collection of 64 games, to be a fresh start for them; that when people think of this place, they think first of celebration, of music, of grace, of beauty.

They have deeply felt every small bump and bruise on the way. A journalist gets robbed; a policeman gets hurt in a gate crush. But this morning is different. A 13-year-old girl named Zenani Mandela was killed, and now her great-grandfather is heartbroken and his country is heartbroken with him.

But if there was a lesson in Vancouver, it was that the dream is not over. It's not what it was, the dream is different now, but good things are still possible. Over the next month in South Africa, there will be celebration, music, grace and beauty.

This morning, right now, the fans are already flooding into Soccer City. Mexican and South African flags are snapping in a stiff breeze. The blaring of vuvuzelas is ringing across the miles. The sun is shining. It's a beautiful day.

Madiba will not be here. When he might have been introduced to a rapturous crowd, now they will likely pay their respects to his lost great-granddaughter. They will be silent, and then they will cheer long and loud, maybe even loud enough for him to hear it.

Because he is in Johannesburg. The world is. And Nelson Mandela, through his tears, would say that today is a terrible day, a day of mourning -- but it remains a day of celebration, too. It's not one or the other; it's not all or nothing. He knows better than most of us that there will always be darkness, but he knows that there will always be light. And he knows that light always wins.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN the Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.