Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. While incarcerated, he played soccer with his fellow inmates in order to avoid going insane under the brutal conditions. He was eventually released in 1990. Two days after his release, 85,000 people gathered to greet their new leader in a soccer stadium.That stadium is the same location where the World Cup is set to begin this week.
To say that this event has significance to Mandela would be a tremendous understatement.
The frail 91-year old Mandela has publicly stated that he plans to attend the World Cup, but he doesn’t plan to stay. He is making the dramatic exception of going out during the winter and jeopardizing his health because the world will be watching the country he loves.
At the end of apartheid, South Africa was banned from international sporting events. The nation has endured a roller coaster of successes and failures during that time, and earning the right to host the World Cup is one of the great achievements of both Mandela and his extraordinary country.
The FIFA World Cup is the most highly viewed event on earth, attracting over 715 million viewers for the final and a total of $2.2 billion viewers for the entire tournament. In comparison, the most highly viewed Super Bowl in history had 106.5 million viewers. The United States is one of the few countries around the world that doesn’t get extremely excited about the World Cup. In other nations, the excitement level is incalculable.
During the last World Cup in 2006, I was doing a research visit with The Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany. I recall seeing people running through the streets after the final, and shops closing so that citizens could watch the game. It was an eye opening experience, and educated me on the magnitude of this event. The idea that an African nation is hosting the event presents a tremendous opportunity for those who worked so hard to make this happen.
All is not happy in South Africa, however. One of the nation’s most powerful labor unions, COSATU, is threatening to strike during the games. They are also asking for wage increases that are three times the rate of inflation. This is risky, given that the South African economy was hit especially hard during the recession and lost over a million jobs. The pending strike also communicates that there is a struggling underclass within South Africa who may not be as inspired as the rest of us by the legacy of a post-apartheid Mandela-led nation.
The World Cup stage may be the last major stage for Mandela, as rumors swirl about his declining health. Some might even wonder if the World Cup will be held in South Africa in response to the fact that Mandela may not be with us much longer. But given that he has lived his first 91 years in such an extraordinary fashion, perhaps it is only fitting that his last days be spent on the largest stage on earth.