JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's national soccer and rugby teams will play on the same day at the former World Cup showpiece stadium in Soweto to honor Nelson Mandela, bringing together in a rare move the country's two most popular sports that once portrayed its deep racial divisions.
The South African sports ministry said on Tuesday that the Nelson Mandela Sports Day on Aug. 17 at FNB Stadium — formerly Soccer City — was aimed at uniting the country and the world "in celebration and promotion'' of the anti-apartheid leader's legacy, as South Africans continued to long for the critically ill former president to recover.
While calling the sports day a celebration of Mandela, the ministry referred to the somber current mood in South Africa, with its inspiring and beloved national hero, now 94, still in a critical but stable condition after 25 days in the hospital.
"The launch happens at a time when South Africa is a nation in distress following the hospitalization of our father and icon Nelson Mandela, who also happens to be the primary inspiration behind this initiative,'' the ministry said.
On the day, South Africa's soccer team will face Burkina Faso in a friendly and the Springboks will start their Rugby Championship campaign against Argentina, both at the 94,000-seat FNB Stadium on the outskirts of Soweto, a site which holds significance for sport and for Mandela himself.
The old FNB was where Mandela made his first speech in Johannesburg and held his first major rally after his release from prison in 1990, having been jailed by the apartheid regime for 27 years. Renamed Soccer City and rebuilt for the 2010 World Cup — the first in Africa — it also was where Mandela made his last public appearance, smiling and waving to nearly 100,000 soccer supporters as he circled the pitch before the World Cup final, three years ago next week.
South Africa's first democratically elected president has strong and emotional ties to sport in his nation, having famously supported the Springboks rugby team when it won the World Cup in 1995, and then the soccer team — known as Bafana Bafana — a year later when it lifted the African Cup of Nations trophy at the FNB.
Rugby and soccer were previously examples of South Africa's racial segregation, with rugby mainly followed by whites and soccer by blacks until Mandela's act of reconciliation and unity at the '95 Rugby World Cup, when he embraced the Springboks, a team associated just a few years earlier with apartheid and white racist rule.
Wearing team shirts on both occasions, Mandela endeared himself to sports-mad South Africans with his appearances at those rugby and soccer games, and he is still often referred to as a motivation for current South African sportsmen and women.
As well as the Springboks and Bafana Bafana sharing the same field, the Aug. 17 sports day also will have a music concert and another soccer game between former South African and Italian internationals. And South Africa's continental champion netball team and leading Springboks try-scorer Bryan Habana will be recognized, the sports ministry said.
South Africa's minister of sport and minister of arts and culture will visit Mandela's foundation offices in Johannesburg on Wednesday to deliver messages of support for the ailing former president, they said.