JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The mere sounds of soccer brightened Nelson Mandela in his darkest, most isolated times.
First, it was the noise that carried across a gray, wind-swept prison yard on Robben Island, his apartheid-era jail — the cheers and kicks from inmates that found a way from the makeshift field, over the concrete walls and through the barbed wire to Mandela's tiny cell.
Later, it was World Cup broadcasts on a radio set, scratchy transmissions of tournaments continents and oceans away filtering through from the great stadiums of the globe to the desolate rock off the southern tip of Africa.
These were flickers of pleasure for Mandela and other inmates between the grueling rounds of daily labor.
"Football was the only joy to prisoners," Mandela said of that time, a time measured in decades for some of them and which stretched from the eras of the great Brazil of Pele all the way to Diego Maradona's Argentina.
After his colossal political life ended, soccer also gave Mandela a final challenge, a final victory and a final wave goodbye.
"I feel like a young man of 15," Mandela, who was actually 85, said in Switzerland in 2004 after South Africa had finally won the right to host the World Cup.
He was able to say farewell to his country, and it to him, at the 2010 final on the outskirts of Soweto, his last public appearance.
Soccer also presented Mandela with a hero. Who could possibly be Nelson Mandela's hero? It was Lucas Radebe, the former South Africa national team captain and defender whom Mandela nicknamed "Big Tree."
"This is my hero," Mandela said, emphasizing the "this" while standing next to the player who surely will never rank among soccer's lasting greats, but who had loyalty, dedication and determination.
"I felt I could burst with pride," the former Leeds player said, recounting the moment in a newspaper interview, no longer quite as speechless as he was at the time. "I was thinking: Me? A hero to him?"
In truth, boxing was Mandela's first love. Rugby was a whirlwind romance later in his life. But soccer stayed with him throughout.
As for those soccer players of Robben Island, theirs is a story in stark contrast to the extravagances and riches now commonplace at the game's highest levels.