They say sport and politics should never mix, but they have seldom been entwined so tightly and with such evident affection as they were on a sunny day in Johannesburg on June 24 1995, when Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis Trophy to Francois Pienaar.
If any single act could be ascribed to the dramatic re-birth of South Africa as the ‘Rainbow Nation’, it was surely the sight of a 76-year-old black man clad in a Springboks jersey and cap taking centre stage.
Mandela’s presence on the field meant far more than that of a triumphant epilogue to a tumultuous personal biopic that had seen him released from 27 years of incarceration – mostly on the notorious Robben Island – and become elected president of South Africa just over one year earlier.
Here was the first indelible image of a post-apartheid nation: Mandela revelling in a victory by a team whose colours had for so long represented many of the very worst aspects of South Africa’s oppressive and racist history.
Only a handful of years earlier, with Mandela still locked up and the nation still black-listed from international sport, the sight of him, as president, handing the trophy to the strapping Afrikaner Pienaar, would have been unthinkable.
The image of that joyous handover has come to symbolise more about South Africa’s re-emergence than any other at the time: arguably, more even that Mandela’s swearing-in as president itself.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela, who died on Thursday, said in a speech in Monaco in 2000. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.
“It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all kinds of discrimination.”
Surely not even the harshest cynic of the sweeping changes being made by Mandela’s government could have picked out any kind of political gesture in his desire to immerse himself so fully in the Springboks’ success.
“I have never felt so tense,” Mandela told Sports Illustrated of the experience of watching them fashion victory over New Zealand. “I felt like fainting.”
The joy on Mandela’s face following South Africa’s 15-12 victory was plain for all to see.
Mandela’s belief in sport as a uniting force was not something that came to him late in life. It was a conviction he clearly held from his youth, when he was a keen distance runner and amateur boxer.
In his autobiography, ‘The Long Walk To Freedom’, Mandela wrote: “Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.”
He added: “It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle.”
Mandela’s presidency may have come to an end in 1999, but he showed no intention stepping back from his fundamental belief in sport as a balm for future generations.
FIFA’s short-lived decision to rotate the football World Cup through continents fell right into the grateful hands of a newly-confident nation, and there was no way Mandela was going to be shunted to the sidelines.
Morocco launched a persuasive counter-bid, but the feeling was that this tournament was South Africa’s – and Mandela’s – destiny: one for which both had patiently waited and richly deserved.
Hosting the 2010 competition would be “the perfect gift to celebrate 10 years of democracy in South Africa”, said Mandela during the final presentations, and there were few inclined to deny him.
The South Africa World Cup shone a light on many of the social problems still afflicting the nation – poverty, disease and crime – but then Mandela never shied away from acknowledging that his Rainbow revolution was unfinished.
On the pitch and in the stadiums it was a vibrant affair, from an opening ceremony tinged with sadness at the absence of the man who helped make it possible because of the tragic death of his great-grand-daughter hours before.
Mandela was back to make a fitting appearance for the final at Soccer City, wrapped up and at the age of 91 cutting a frail figure compared with the beaming president who had skipped on to the pitch to embrace Pienaar.
There was the unavoidable sense that as Mandela feasted on the action, he knew his particular sporting legacy was complete.
Be it the victorious red shirts of Spain or the green and gold Springbok jersey he had worn in the same city 15 years earlier, Mandela had used sport to bring colour to a nation whose history was all too brutally defined by black and white.