| Gareth Southgate says he skipped the meeting because he had managed only two hours of sleep on the flight
London: Gareth Southgate and the Football Association have defended the decision by eight England players to skip a meeting with Nelson Mandela.
While the rest of the team met the former South African President on Wednesday morning in Johannesburg, Southgate and seven others stayed at the team hotel in Durban.
England are scheduled to play South Africa in a friendly in Durban.
Several British newspapers treated the incident as a major snub. The Daily Mail said on its back page: “In years to come, eight of England’s soccer superstars would have been able to tell their grandchildren they met one of history’s greatest statesmen. Instead they decided to stay in bed.”
In addition to Southgate, the players who skipped the meeting were Paul Scholes, Phil Neville, Steven Gerrard, Danny Mills, Paul Robinson, Gareth Barry and Joe Cole.
“Nelson Mandela is without question one of the most important figures in the modern world, and that made it a difficult decision for me not to go and meet him,” Southgate wrote in his column for London’s Evening Standard on Thursday.
“Unfortunately, though, I managed only two hours sleep on the flight over, so the early start to visit Mr. Mandela and the additional travelling involved would not have been right for me as an individual in order to prepare for the match.”
South African player Lucas Radebe, who plays with Robinson and Mills at Leeds, was surprised that all the players did not show up. “I thought everybody would be there, especially as Mandela is the greatest statesman ever,” he said.
An FA spokesman said only a limited number of places were available for the visit and criticised the negative coverage in Britain. “Everyone would have liked to go, but logistically it was not appropriate,” he said. “The visit was optional for members of the FA party, and there were only 30 places available. Those places were filled by a good mix of players, staff and officials.”
England captain David Beckham, who presented Mandela with an England jersey, said the meeting was “one of the greatest moments” of his career.
Defender Rio Ferdinand felt the same way. “I was so desperate to get my picture taken with him. These experiences come along once in a lifetime — if you are lucky,” he said. (AP)