(Reuters) – Nelson Mandela attended the opening of Sunday’s World Cup final between Spain and Netherlands, thrilling fans and capping South Africa’s pride in staging a successful tournament.
Mandela, 91, who is in frail health, waved as he briefly toured the pitch in a golf cart surrounded by bodyguards. He was given an ecstatic welcome by the crowd chanting his clan name Madiba and blowing vuvuzela trumpets.
FIFA had said it hoped Mandela would attend but the former South Africa president, who celebrates his birthday on July 18, rarely appears in public and his grandson Mandla Mandela hinted the Nobel peace price winner would not attend the entire match.
“He’s going to rest and try and get some energy for tonight,” Mandla Mandela told Reuters ahead of the match, due to start at 1830 GMT at Soccer City on the edge of the sprawling black township of Soweto.
“He has expressed that he is coming to the stadium to come and greet the fans and go back home.”
Mandela missed the opening match of the tournament a month ago after his great-granddaughter died in a car accident.
South Africa’s military health service said Mandela’s visit was made possible after it had close consultations with his family and FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
“At no stage was the health of Dr Mandela compromised and… members of the SA Military Health Service (were) on hand to ensure the wellbeing of Dr Mandela,” it said in a statement.
The presence of Mandela, revered globally for his role in fighting apartheid and leading his country to democracy, adds to South African joy at successfully hosting the first World Cup on the continent.
National team Bafana Bafana bowed out of the tournament at the first round stage but President Jacob Zuma said on Saturday the relatively smooth hosting of the finals made its people the champions.
Skeptics had doubted Africa’s economic powerhouse could organize the World Cup, including completing construction of stadiums on time.
While some tourists have been robbed, the world’s biggest sporting event has taken place largely peacefully, confounding fears of attacks on foreigners in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime outside a war zone.
(Additional reporting by Barry Moody; Editing by Ken Ferris)