Nelson Mandela crowned South Africa’s World Cup Sunday with an appearance on the field at the closing ceremony, as 700 million viewers tuned in to watch Spain’s 1-0 victory over Netherlands.
The 91-year-old flashed his famous smile and waved to the nearly 85,000 fans in Johannesburg as he circled the pitch alongside his wife Graca Machel in an open-air vehicle, in a brief but proud moment the nation had long waited for.
He was greeted by cheers of “Madiba”, his clan name used affectionately by his compatriots, which rang louder than applause for any of the stars at the closing show that illuminated the stands in fireworks and lights.
The anti-apartheid hero’s family had earlier hit out at FIFA “pressure” and he only decided two hours earlier to join 17 world leaders, royalty and a raft of Hollywood stars who have jetted into Johannesburg.
Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, his grandson, told AFP that he would return home to watch the game.
Mandela had cancelled on the June 11 opener when his 13-year-old great-granddaughter was killed in a car crash.
“We’re also a family in mourning. We should allow my grandfather to mourn,” the grandson said earlier.
“FIFA should have taken that into consideration and stop pressuring” for Mandela to attend, he added.
The moment inevitably recalled South Africa’s 1995 rugby World Cup victory when Mandela donned the jersey of the nation’s mainly white Springboks, in a moment now seen as a symbol of national healing.
The Nobel laureate’s spirit has loomed large over Africa’s first World Cup, which has been repeatedly compared to the national euphoria that greeted his release from an apartheid prison 20 years ago.
South Africa has delighted in proving wrong sceptics’ fears about the host country’s ability to pull it off, with President Jacob Zuma calling it “a truly inspiring, moving and uplifting month.”
Tickets to the sold-out final resold for up to 2,500 dollars online, more than double the highest official price.
FIFA says overall attendance at all World Cup matches has topped three million, only the third tournament to do so, and predicts the television audience will top 700 million with live broadcasts in 215 countries and territories
During the closing show, Colombian “Waka Waka” superstar Shakira performed on the field, which was transformed into a giant screen used to project a highlights reel of the tournament’s best moments.
More than 700 performers showed off the nation’s varied musical heritage, from jazz to urban hip-hop, while giant elephant puppets glided across the field.
Police deployed heavy security around the stadium, restricting access to the city’s main highway and banning flights overhead.
Hundreds of Dutch and Spanish fans paid top dollar to jet into Johannesburg for the match, as both nations angled to hoist the World Cup for the first time, creating huge anticipation for fans at home.
In Madrid police closed a one-kilometre (half-mile) stretch of the main thoroughfare for a “fan park” where some 150,000 supporters of “La Roja” (The Reds) gathered for a victory fiesta that was likely to last all night.
Amsterdam had to urge people to stop coming into a city square where 100,000 people gathered to watch, while Dutch flags draped from homes, some of which had been entirely covered in orange plastic sheets.