Soccer legends mark Mandela birthday

South Africa's Nelson Mandela celebrates his 89th birthday Wednesday, a day after he received a special birthday gift from Brazilian soccer legend Pele.

updated: July 19, 2007 08:01 IST
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Former South African President Nelson Mandela celebrates his 89th birthday Wednesday, a day after he received a special birthday gift from Brazilian soccer legend Pele and three-time African player of the year Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon.

The players head the list of the more than 50 past and present international stars of the game taking part in a "90 Minutes for Mandela" match to mark his birthday.

A smiling Mandela received an official jersey for the match in black with No. 89 emblazoned on it.

"I am deeply honored to receive this tribute from FIFA, but it must always be remembered that I was one of many who fought for freedom from tyranny and racism," Mandela said Tuesday, according to a statement released by FIFA, one of the organizers of the match.

The match, to be played in Cape Town, will pit Africa against the rest of the world.

Mandela also praised the world soccer organization for honoring the Makana Football Association, the soccer league formed by political prisoners on Robben Island, where he was incarcerated for 18 of the 27 years he spent in jail.

Before Wednesday's match, FIFA Vice President Jack Warner will confer honorary FIFA membership on the Makana Football Association, whose games Mandela, separated from his comrades, watched from his cell window until prison authorities built a wall to further cut him off.

"During the dark years of our incarceration, the association drew together all the prisoners on the island around the beautiful game of soccer. In this way it helped uphold the values of tolerance, of inclusiveness and reconciliation, and of non-racialism and peace that are still dear to all of us today," Mandela said.

Mandela also discussed a number of topics, including the 2010 World Cup that South Africa will host as well as his fight against AIDS and discrimination in a private meeting with the players and FIFA and local soccer representatives at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, the statement said.

"I have met a lot of great personalities in my life but Nelson Mandela is an extraordinary person," Pele said.

"I am really touched and honored to lead the Rest of the World team in his birthday match. I am a big admirer of what this man has achieved in his life," Pele said, adding that football was the best way to build bridges between cultures.

The July 18 birthday of the man known affectionately as Madiba is annual cause for celebration in South Africa and draws attention from his many local and international admirers.

This year, the partying also has a serious side, with the launch Wednesday of a humanitarian campaign to be led by Mandela, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other "elders" of the global village.

"This group of international leaders will share how they intend to work together to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity in addressing some of the world's toughest problems," the Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement.

The group, with a full roster to be announced Wednesday, stems from an idea by British entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel to create a world council of elders to tackle issues such as conflict, AIDS and global warming.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton will open an exhibition on Thursday that focuses on the late Chief Albert Luthuli, an anti-apartheid campaigner who won the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, and Mandela, who was given the honor in 1993.

Luthuli was the leader of the now-governing African National Congress when the organization decided to embark on an armed struggle against the racist apartheid regime. Mandela was the ANC's leader three decades years later as it negotiated a peace settlement with the nationalist government.

On Sunday, Annan will deliver the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture.

Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid. He was released in 1990 to lead negotiations to end decades of racist white rule and elected president in South Africa's first free elections in 1994. He left office in 1999, but has continued to take a leading role in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and AIDS in Africa.