Nelson Mandela met South Africa’s national soccer team, Bafana Bafana, on Thursday, wearing the captain’s No. 4 shirt, to help inspire the team in this month’s World Cup which the country is hosting.
The former South African president, who turns 92 next month, is increasingly frail and rarely makes public appearances.
His stature, however, is widely seen to have helped sway the 2004 vote to award the Cup to the country, and FIFA president Sepp Blatter said on Wednesday his presence at the opening match on Friday would be a highlight of the tournament.
The Mandela Foundation said in a statement he was introduced to the team and coaching staff at their Johannesburg offices.
His office, however, would not confirm media reports that the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who led South Africa out of Apartheid in 1994, would attend the World Cup opening ceremony.
“The Nelson Mandela Foundation does not disclose Mr Mandela’s schedule in public for security reasons,” said Sello Hatang, spokesman for the foundation.
South African Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile was quoted in the Star newspaper as saying Mandela wanted to attend the World Cup and that his office had asked for tickets.
The ruling African National Congress also said Mandela would be there.
“The information that we have from his office is that he will be attending the opening and will also be attending the closing ceremony,” the party’s spokesman Jackson Mthembu said. “We are happy that Madiba [Mandela’s clan name] will come and the Madiba magic will also add to this excitement.”
Mandela helped inspire the Springbok rugby team to World Cup glory at home in 1995, famously wearing captain Francois Pienaar’s jersey, but Mandela’s office has stressed in the past that the decision about attending events this year was solely up to him and would not be made public.
Some observers have suggested poor health may keep him away from Africa’s first hosting of the world’s most watched sports event.
South Africa play Mexico in the opening game in a tough Group A that also includes previous winners France and Uruguay.