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Sports world mourns Nelson Mandela

12/5/2013
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Barack Obama Remembers Nelson Mandela

President Barack Obama reflects on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Sports figures from Muhammad Ali to Tiger Woods to the president of soccer's governing body were among the many mourning the death of Nelson Mandela on Thursday.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter released a statement saying the former South Africa president was "probably one of the greatest humanists of our time."

Blatter said he and Mandela "shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship."

One of Mandela's last major public appearances was during the closing ceremony of the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

Blatter is in Brazil for Friday's World Cup draw that determines who and where the 32 nations will play next year.

FIFA's president said the flags of the 209 member associations at FIFA's headquarters will be flown at half-mast and there will be a minute's silence before the next round of international matches.

Mandela embraced all sports, but one of the most important matches he was a part of occurred in 1995 at the Rugby World Cup final. It was nation-defining for South Africa, a transcendent moment in the transformation from apartheid to multi-racial democracy.

The day spawned books and a blockbuster Clint Eastwood movie. It still speaks -- nearly 20 years later -- to what sport is capable of achieving. With his cap and a team jersey, Mandela showed an incisive understanding of the role sport plays in millions of lives.

"Sport has the power to change the world," Mandela said in a speech five years after that match. "It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does."

A statesman, Mandela didn't just have brushes with sports, occasional appearances timed only for political gain. He embraced them wholeheartedly -- rugby, soccer, cricket, boxing, track and field, among others. And, by many accounts, he truly loved athletic contests, with their celebration of humanity and how they unite teammates, fans and countries in triumph and, sometimes, in despair. At one time in his youth, Mandela cut an impressive figure as an amateur boxer.

Fellow boxer Ali released a statement on Thursday: "I am deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Mandela. His was a life filled with purpose and hope; hope for himself, his country and the world. He inspired others to reach for what appeared to be impossible and moved them to break through the barriers that held them hostage mentally, physically, socially and economically.

"He made us realize, we are our brother's keeper and that our brothers come in all colors. What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge. He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale. His was a spirit born free, destined to soar above the rainbows.

"Today his spirit is soaring through the heavens. He is now forever free."

On June 24, 1995, Mandela and South Africa were triumphant. And he may just have saved a country by pulling on that green and gold jersey with a prancing antelope on the left breast. The Springboks were dear to the hearts of South Africa's white Afrikaners and loathed by the nation's black majority. By donning their emblem, Mandela reconciled a nation fractured and badly damaged by racism and hatred.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think that Nelson Mandela would pitch up at the final wearing a Springbok on his heart," South Africa's captain on that day, Francois Pienaar, said in a television interview some time later. "When he walked into our changing room to say good luck to us, he turned around and my number was on his back.

"It was just an amazing feeling."

Mandela also could leave millionaire sportsmen like David Beckham and Woods star-struck.

"I got a chance to meet with him back in '98 with my father [Earl] at his home and had a great lunch together. ... He certainly had an impact on my life and certainly my father, and I think that time frame in which when he came out, the country could have fallen apart," Woods said. "It could have gone a lot of different ways, and he led it to where it's at now, and the world is going to miss him."

South African golfer Gary Player called Mandela "one of the great heroes" in his life.

"As a proud South African, I am certain Mandela's legacy will endure in our nation and across the world as a figure of courage, value, spirit, and above all else, love," Player said in a statement. "Madiba's long life inspired great change in our nation, but not without adversity. I commend him for all that he did over his 95 years. He was a courageous leader who fought for all that is right, and he possessed an aura that inspired people, and our nation, to change for the better."

During the rugby match, Mandela, known affectionately to South Africans by his clan name Madiba, was wearing the No. 6 jersey of Pienaar -- the Afrikaans rugby player with whom he had struck up a close friendship. The relationship was portrayed by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in the film "Invictus" and took rugby and the story of the 1995 World Cup to millions unfamiliar with South Africa's game.

The underdog South Africans won that day, beating New Zealand -- the top team in the world -- in extra time of a nerve-racking final.

"We underestimated how proud it would make South Africa," Pienaar said, recalling the tournament and telling of how Mandela would phone him up regularly to check on the team. "It would be Madiba, wanting to chat to me, to find out what's happening. Is the team focused? Are they OK? Are the guys cool?"

The phone calls told of Mandela's desire for the Springboks to win for all South Africans, but also his affinity with sport.

Mandela became a famous fan of nearly every sport -- including many the South African wouldn't have been too familiar with.

"Nelson Mandela was one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "Our thoughts and hopes are with the Mandela family and the people of South Africa, and while we mourn his passing, we know that his legacy and quest for equality will endure."

NBA star LeBron James said Mandela's "words, his mind will live on forever."

"In his 95 years, he was able to do some unbelievable things," James continued. "Not only for just South Africa, but for the whole world. You hate to lose a pioneer, a great. But what they can leave behind is more than anything.

"And I think [what] Nelson Mandela will leave behind is more than himself. He's going to live on forever, like Martin Luther King and some of the other greats who have come and go. It's a sad day. For us to all be in this position to see what he meant to this world while he was here means everything."

Mandela repeated his success in 1996, this time wearing a South Africa national football team shirt as Bafana Bafana claimed the African Cup of Nations title, again on home soil. With Mandela, it appeared you couldn't lose.

He also was pivotal in helping South Africa eventually win the right to host the 2010 soccer World Cup, the first in Africa and perhaps the biggest test of South Africa's progress, of its coming of age, just 16 years into its young democracy. South Africa came through it with high praise, sweeping aside the doubters -- as Mandela said his country would.

Mandela's last public appearance for South Africa was at that soccer World Cup final in Soweto, the township closely connected to the struggle against apartheid and the center of the world again for a few weeks -- this time in celebration. By then, Mandela was old and, unable to walk for too long and bundled up against the cold in a thick coat and hat, he circled the stadium on a golf cart.

South Africa, and the world, couldn't celebrate the country's biggest sporting moment without him. Yet, painfully maybe, it reminded them of a former Mandela. One 15 years earlier.

As he strode out onto the Ellis Park field in June 1995, Mandela stretched out his hand as he approached a line of muscular, young, mostly white South African players. He was crossing a chasm, both in sport and in politics. And yet, he made the journey smoothly and with a smile.

After South Africa had won the final 15-12, a fairytale ending to its first major event as a democracy, Mandela -- still in his jersey -- handed the glistening gold World Cup trophy to the blond-haired Pienaar, an ideal picture of a new South Africa. Mandela reached out his left hand and laid it on Pienaar's right shoulder, patting it gently.

"He said to me, 'Thank you for what you have done for South Africa,'" Pienaar recalled. "I said to him, 'No, Madiba, you've got it wrong. Thank you for what you've done for South Africa.' And I felt like hugging him. I really felt like giving him a big hug, but it wasn't protocol ... and that just gave me shivers down my spine."

And then Mandela raised both his arms in celebration, smiling gleefully with obvious and undisguised delight as Pienaar lifted the cup.

"Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination," Mandela said.

And he proved it.

Information from ESPN.com's Bob Harig and Michael Wallace and The Associated Press was used in this report.