Johannesburg: England captain David Beckham described meeting Nelson Mandela as an “amazing honour” on Wednesday as the former South African president asked him to back the country’s bid for the 2010 soccer World Cup.
Beckham, who leads England in a friendly against South Africa on Thursday, smiled and presented an English soccer jersey to the anti-Apartheid icon — an avid sports fan.
“To meet a great man such as you is an amazing honour for everyone involved in the FA (Football Association) and the England team,” said Beckham, who spoke softly and appeared nervous with Mandela.
He handed the 84-year-old a white jersey with “Mandela 03” printed on the back. Mandela jokingly said he would not put it on for fear of offending the South African team.
Mandela used his meeting with the English squad to bolster support for South Africa’s World Cup bid. “We are looking for the 2010 soccer (World Cup) and we hope that you and the British people will support our bid,” he said.
“I have a promise from David Beckham that they will support our bid. That alone gives us a great deal of hope,” Mandela later told Lucas Radebe, who will lead the South African side.
South Africa faces rival bids from five other African countries. South Africa narrowly lost their bid for the 2006 tournament after a controversial vote handed it to Germany.
Beckham told reporters in Durban on Tuesday a World Cup in South Africa would be amazing. “If I look after myself and treat my body right, I’d love to be here in 2010,” the Star newspaper reported him as saying.
The England visit has been given blanket coverage by the country’s media, with newspapers splashing pictures of Beckham’s new, cornrow-style hairdo.
When asked about Beckham’s hairstyle, Mandela laughed and touched his own white hair: “I’m too old to express an opinion on this latest development for young people.” The response was more laughter from the players and his own staff, who crowded the auditorium at the former President’s Foundation offices.
“David, we love your hair. It’s Africa,” shouted Bridget Prince as Beckham and his teammates later signed soccer balls and posed for pictures.
A handful of Mandela’s grandchildren, dressed in tracksuits and school uniforms, were given a reprieve from lessons to meet their sports heroes.
“I think he’s the greatest player,” said Zozuko after shaking hands with the England captain.
But another Mandela grandson Bambata was less awed by Beckham — or at least his hairdo. “It’s ok, but I’ve had hair like that before,” he said.
Radebe bows out of international football on Thursday at the same venue where he made an historic debut more than a decade ago. The 34-year-old was in the side that beat Cameroon in July 1992, South Africa’s first international after emerging from 30 years of apartheid-enforced isolation.
On Thursday he will win his 70th and final cap against England, the country where he has plied his trade since joining Leeds United almost 10 years ago from Kaizer Chiefs.
Radebe has endured a topsy-turvy relationship with the South African team, even his final appearance being overshadowed by a row resulting in coach Ephraim Mashaba standing down for the England game.
Mashaba, who took over after last year’s World Cup, refused to bow to pressure to include several high profile foreign-based players — some of whom, including Radebe, he has accused of picking and choosing their matches and of being “unpatriotic”.
World Cup coach Jomo Sono has been put in charge for one game before Mashaba returns — and he is in no doubt as to the contribution Radebe has made to the national cause.
“You don’t discard legends,” Sono said.“Lucas is a legend, he deserves this game.”
Radebe, the only member of the side to play in South Africa’s first post-apartheid game still playing, says he is relishing going out against the players he faces every week in the English Premier League.
“I want to go out with a bang and what a way to go out, against a team like England, where I played so much of my football,” said Radebe, who has not played for the national team since the World Cup.
His popularity in England has not always been mirrored in South Africa, however, despite being his country’s most capped player and recently being voted the best South African player of the last decade by a soccer magazine.
He missed more than a year of international football before surprisingly returning from a knee injury to lead his country in South Korea and Japan, his second successive appearance at the World Cup finals.
Earlier this year he turned down a call-up to a national training squad in Spain — a decision that angered Mashaba. Last year his club were accused of “playing games” after Radebe was withdrawn from an African Nations Cup qualifier against Ivory Coast.
Radebe announced his international retirement last month saying that he wanted to concentrate on playing for Leeds United for whom he will have a testimonial next season.