When Nelson Mandela was released from his 27-year jail sentence in February 1990, few people in football envisaged the World Cup being staged in his homeland.

Twenty years later, it's a reality. The stadiums are built, the fans are buying tickets and booking their hotel rooms in nine cities from Johannesburg to Cape Town to Durban. And few people would deny that none of this would have happened without him.

The former South African President and the main figure behind the struggle to end apartheid turns 92 a week after the July 11 final at Soccer City. He is now probably too frail to repeat his memorable handing of the winner's trophy to South Africa captain Francois Pienaar when their country hosted and won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Wearing a green South African rugby shirt with a Springbok motif once hated by the oppressed black majority, Mandela said to Pienaar, a white Afrikaaner: “Francois, thank you very much for what you have done for our country.”

“No, Mr. President,” Pienaar replied. “Thank you for what you have done for our country.”

Pienaar recalls how Mandela, who could have walked out of jail seeking revenge on the oppressive white minority, instead won them over with his open-hearted humility.

He turned to the white-dominated sport or rugby and made the players and their followers his friends.

“We adopted a motto, ‘One team, one country,' because we realised that this competition was for everyone in South Africa and to do well in this competition would make everyone in South Africa proud,” Pienaar says. “We underestimated how proud he could make South Africa.” The world saw how a united South Africa was able to stage a big international sports event and, despite fears about its alarming crime rate in the big cities, followed that up successfully with the cricket World Cup and last year's Confederations Cup football tournament.

Now, South African rugby fans who are from Afrikaaner and English backgrounds have swung their allegiances behind the football team for this year's World Cup.

Although the Bafana Bafana are outsiders compared with the powerhouse teams such as Brazil, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, England, Argentina, France and defending champion Italy, the South Africans will be cheering them on.

More In: Football | Sport