Nelson Mandela and the power of sporting victory

The image of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar came to define the progress the South African nation had made post apartheid. Credit: Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS Sport

One of the defining moments of Nelson Mandela's life came on the rugby field at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in 1995 when he handed the World Cup trophy to South Africa captain Francois Pienaar.

The nation's collected celebration at the Springboks' thrilling extra-time victory over favourites New Zealand would have been unthinkable before the end of apartheid.

But President Mandela had urged black South Africans to rally behind a side they had for years despised as one of the symbols of the white Afrikaners' rule.

He led by example, wearing a Springbok cap and shirt with Pienaar's number six on its back, and was met by thunderous applause as he took to the field to congratulate the team and deliver the Webb Ellis trophy.

The roar from the largely white South African crowd showed the strength of his popularity just five years after his release from prison.

Pienaar, paying tribute to Mandela following his death at the age of 95 on Thursday, said he became aware of the personal tribute from his leader when he visited the team before the kick off.

Even in the build-up to the most important game of his life, he said Mandela had managed to instill in him yet more determination to win.

"He turned around and my number was on his back," Pienaar said. "That was me. I would run through walls [for Mandela], I would play until I can't play."

A keen boxer in his youth, Mandela loved sport both as a fan and a political leader, where he promoted its unique role in bringing divided people together.

Delivering a speech in 2000, he said:

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way little else does. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.

The exchange between Mandela and Pienaar became one of the signature moments in South Africa's move towards unification as a nation and inspired the Hollywood movie Invictus, with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon portraying the men on screen.

Morgan Freeman starred as Nelson Mandela opposite Matt Damon as rugby skipper Francois Pienaar in Clint Eastwood's film. Credit: EG/ABACA USA/Empics Entertainment

The publicity for the 2009 film saw Pienaar recall the famous moment again, and the understated words his president - affectionately known as Madiba - chose in congratulating him.

He said to me 'Thank you for what you have done for South Africa'. I said to him, 'No, Madiba, you've got it wrong. Thank you for what you've done for South Africa.' And I felt like hugging him. I really felt like giving him a big hug, but it wasn't protocol ... and that just gave me shivers down my spine.

The moment - and the image of the two men united in triumph - continues to inspire similar feelings 18 years on as the world mourns and celebrates the life of Mandela.