JOHANNESBURG, June 3 – Nelson Mandela was at the centre of a World Cup tug-of-war Thursday as organisers said they expected him to attend the tournament kick-off and his family insisted he was too frail to appear.The government, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and football’s world governing body FIFA said the 91-year-old would be present for next week’s kick-off when the host nation takes on Mexico.
But his family said people had to consider his state of health, reiterating previous comments that there was no way he would make the trip to Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium.
"I, as a member of the family, together with the family, have taken the decision that my grandfather is 92 years, it would be really a challenge to take him out in a cold winter day to go and watch a game of football," his grandson Mandla Mandela, the family’s spokesman, told AFP.
"We, as South Africans and the international community need to start considering his health. I really know that he’ll not be at the opening match."
Mandla Mandela’s comments punctured optimism generated by statements from the government and the party Nelson Mandela used to lead that he would be the star guest at the opening ceremony on June 11.
"Mandela has demanded to attend the World Cup. He requested four tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies, and the organisers have granted his wish," Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile said in The Star newspaper.
"We have learnt through his office and the minister of sport that he will be attending the opening and closing matches of the World Cup," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu told AFP.
"We are elated. We are over the moon, his presence means a lot to us and the country," said Mthembu adding the Nobel prize winner had asked to be present.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter was also quoted as saying that Mandela would be among the crowds at Soccer City, the flagship stadium adjoining the vast Soweto township which will stage the opening match and the July 11 final.
Mandela, who turns 92 next month, campaigned for the World Cup to come to South Africa and was present in Zurich in 2004 when the country was named the event’s host.
"It was not FIFA who decided to give the 2010 World Cup to South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the world’s great humanist and charismatic leader, was the person who got the World Cup for South Africa," Blatter said at a dinner late Wednesday, according to the SAPA news agency.
"It is fantastic that Madiba will be there at Soccer City in person to witness what he set out to achieve," he added, using Mandela’s clan name.
Asked about the statements, Mandla Mandela said: "I don’t know where they take that from."
"We, as a family, are independent. We don’t have any member serving at FIFA or having any position at FIFA…. We have no role in their tournament as far as being obliged to be there."
Mandela did however meet on Thursday with members of the South African team who paid a visit to his home in Johannesburg.
Wearing a Bafana Bafana jersey carrying the captain’s number four, Mandela arrived to cheers and songs from the team, members of his family and his staff.
The team captain, Portsmouth star Aaron Mokoena, introduced Mandela to the 23-man squad and Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.
The former president’s public appearances have become increasingly limited in recent months, the last coming in February on the 20th anniversary of his release from prison.
Mandela famously presented the rugby World Cup to South Africa’s Springboks team after they won the 1995 tournament in Johannesburg — their first appearance on the world stage since they were welcomed into the fold after the fall of apartheid.