Doubleheader for Mandela

JOHANNESBURG — 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 the country’s two most popular sports that once underlined deep racial divisions.

The South African sports ministry said Tuesday that 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.

While calling the sports day a celebration of Mandela, the ministry referred to the somber mood in South Africa, with its beloved 94-year-old national hero 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.

South Africa’s soccer team will play Burkina Faso in an exhibition, and the Springboks will start their Rugby Championship campaign against Argentina. Both games will be at the 94,000-seat stadium on the outskirts of Soweto, a site that holds significance for sports and 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 fans as he circled the field before the World Cup final, three years ago next week.

South Africa’s first democratically elected president has strong and emotional ties to sports in his nation. He 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 captured 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.

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