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South Africa
Francois Pienaar remembers Nelson Mandela
ESPN Staff
December 11, 2013
Springboks captains Francois Pienaar and Jean de Villiers at the Mandela memorial © Eye Witness News
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Francois Pienaar led the sports tributes to Nelson Mandela at the memorial service to South Africa's former president at Ellis Park, the ground at which Madiba presented the Webb Ellis Cup to the Springboks captain after the Rugby World Cup 1995 final. The image of the two men, each wearing the Springboks No.6 jumper, remains one of the most iconic photographs in history.

Pienaar and current Springboks captain Jean de Villiers recounted their memories of the day when South Africa made their mark on sport following their exclusion during the Apartheid era.

"There was a knock on the [dressing room] door and in walked Mr Mandela," Pienaar said on Sky News on Tuesday. "We didn't know he was going to be there. I cannot explain to you how I felt. I wanted to cry because I was so, so proud. My number was on his back. I couldn't sing the anthem because I was just too emotional.

"You would run until you could run no more. Afterwards the guys said we had an unfair advantage; of course we did."

De Villiers said: "I was only 14-years-old when we won the World Cup and I would never forget the image of Madiba walking out at Ellis Park with his Springbok jersey on with the No.6 on the back. And then the image of Francois actually holding the World Cup at the end, with Madiba standing in the background waving his cap and dancing. He was such a joyful person.

Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar in the shot heard around the world © Getty Images
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De Villiers also spoke of "Madiba Magic", the phenomenon that saw Mr Mandela become a lucky omen for the Springboks. "He watched six live rugby games of which we won five. It always felt as if when he was there, the opposition didn't stand a chance."

Pienaar told Sky News how Mr Mandela had insisted on keeping alive the traditional Springboks symbol, despite his political party being against the idea. "If it wasn't for Mr Mandela, [the Springbok] would never be on our chests," Pienaar said. "The ANC wanted the Springbok to be taken away, for very good reasons, but Mr Mandela had a vision. He said, 'no, these are our boys, they are playing for us. Let's embrace them'. If it wasn't for that there is no doubt in mind we would have not been able to wear our Springbok blazers to come and say goodbye and to say thank you to such a wonderful man."

Pienaar had spoken previously about the image of him and Mandela, a photograph described as a "shot heard around the world".

"I just wanted to hug him at that moment but did not think it was the thing you did with a head of state," Pienaar told The Telegraph in London last week after being informed of Mandela's death.

"As we stood there he turned to me and said with that incredible, beautiful smile of his: 'Thank you for what you have done for South Africa.' I couldn't believe he had said that. With some people you meet, they are just courteous. Some you meet are politicking. With Madiba, it was always genuine. We had met a year before, in 1994. He had just been elected president and I had just been made Springbok captain. We had tea together. That was all. And we just chatted, for an hour, interrupting each other, laughing. That was the way it was."

Mandela invited himself to Pienaar's wedding, and the player and his wife years later asked him to be godfather to their two sons. "It was just Jean at first but Stephane asked why he was not his godfather too," Pienaar told The Telegraph.

"I told him it was because he hadn't got the call. So the little one asked him. Madiba gave out a lovely big laugh, embraced Stephane and later gave him his own name 'Ghora' which means The Brave One because he had made the phone call. I have had some of the most intimate moments of my life with Madiba. There is a sincerity and openness about him that affected millions. Our relationship was incredible. It grew enormously after 1995.

"That was the start of the journey, not the end. He was a special, special person. I wish I had the words now to give a fitting tribute but I can't find them, I just can't."

South Africa's players celebrate after winning the Nelson Mandela Bay South Africa Sevens © Getty Images
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The teams at the Nelson Mandela Bay South Africa Sevens at the weekend paid tribute to Madiba © IRB
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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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