JOHANNESBURG – JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Nelson Mandela met with South Africa's national soccer team Thursday, the same day the country's ruling party said its most famous citizen will attend the World Cup's opening game and the final.
Mandela wore a yellow Bafana Bafana team jersey with the No. 4 of captain Aaron Mokoena on the front when he appeared with players at his foundation in Johannesburg. The players sang "Nelson Mandela there is no one like you," as he entered the room at his offices in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.
Mokoena then introduced Mandela to 6-foot-6 defender Matthew Booth, and said of Booth, "Here is the tallest man in the building." Mandela himself is 6-4.
Hours earlier, African National Congress spokesman Jackson Mthembu said Mandela will make a rare public appearance at next Friday's tournament opener, between the host and Mexico, and the July 11 final. The announcement came amid worries the 91-year-old icon would be too frail to attend South Africa's biggest sporting event.
"Madiba will grace both the opening and the closing of the World Cup," Mthembu said, using the traditional clan name by which Mandela is affectionately known in South Africa. "We are very honored to have an icon of Mandela's caliber to grace this important event. We are very happy that Madiba will come. The Madiba magic will add to the excitement."
A spokesman at Mandela's foundation would not say if Mandela would attend the opening match, saying they do not disclose his schedule ahead of time for security reasons.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said Wednesday that World Cup organizers desperately hoped Mandela would make the opening game. Blatter said the World Cup would not be the same without Mandela, and that his presence would be the "highlight" of the event.
South Africa's former president retired from public life in 2004, but made a surprise appearance last year at an ANC rally before the national election.
Mandela now makes very few appearances in public, but was photographed with the World Cup trophy last month.
He has been credited by FIFA as one of the architects of Africa's first World Cup. In December 2009, he recorded a video message on the significance of the event.
"We feel privileged and humbled that South Africa has been given the singular honor of being the African host country," Mandela said in the message. "We must strive for excellence in our hosting of the World Cup while at the same time ensuring that the event leaves a lasting benefit to all our people."
Mandela has strong links to sport in South Africa after he famously appeared at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final wearing the green and gold jersey of the Springboks, the country's national rugby team. He had the No. 6 of rugby captain Francois Pienaar on the back of his jersey that day, and South Africa went on to win the title.
A reputation for inspiring teams to victory with his presence, known as the "Madiba magic," was cemented when he wore a Bafana shirt before their victory in the 1996 African Cup of Nations — still South Africa's only major soccer achievement.