JOHANNESBURG — The mere sounds of a football game 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 brutal apartheid-era jail. The noise of every cheer and every kick from his fellow inmates that found a way from their makeshift field, over the concrete walls and through the barbed wire to Mandela's tiny cell helped sustain him.
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.
They were flickers of pleasure for Mandela and other inmates in between the grueling daily hard 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 came to an end, football also gave Mandela a final challenge, a final victory, and the chance for 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 very last public appearance. The sport should be very proud that it was able to give all this to Mandela, a man who gave so much.
Football even presented Mandela with a hero. It's an amazing thought: Nelson Mandela's hero. Who could possibly live up to that sky-high mark? It was Lucas Radebe, the former South Africa national team captain and defender who Mandela nicknamed "Big Tree."
"This is my hero," Mandela said, emphasizing the "this" while standing next to the player who will never be considered among football'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 football — and here we're talking the very basic and good qualities of football — stayed with him throughout.
And as for those footballers of Robben Island, theirs is a story that has been told before, but should be told over and over and over again to a game now so accustomed to extravagance and riches, and which must regularly be reminded of its real value and why it resonated in the way it did with someone like Mandela.
On the island, the inmates' football field was a barren open space surrounded by those grinding concrete walls. The nets were made out of discarded fishing ropes, prisoners say, collected from the shores around the island. They still considered it their "Wembley." Their ball was rolled up pieces of paper stuffed into a sack, the league trophy carved out of wood by a creative prisoner.
Inmates had spent years asking the apartheid authorities every week for permission to play football. It was denied and denied, and the request sometimes met with solitary confinement where food was taken away. The players of Robben Island weren't rewarded with millions to play football, they were punished for it.
And still they wanted to play. Still they asked for football. Eventually they won, it was allowed.
But Mandela and the other anti-apartheid leaders weren't allowed to take part for fear they would influence the main prison population. The jailers also took away the pleasing sight of his comrades playing by putting up a concrete wall to block Mandela's view from his cell in the isolated block, a prison within a prison. They couldn't, however, prevent the occasional joyous exclamations from the games drifting over.
In 2007, FIFA conferred honorary status on the Makana Football Association that was formed by Robben Island inmates in the 1960s and under which they played their games. The prisoners say they adhered strictly to the rules of international football after a book of FIFA's regulations was found in the prison library and every article was copied by hand onto new pages that could be taken away.
Today you can just about see the outline of Cape Town's 2010 World Cup stadium from the prison's once sandy field, now overgrown with shrubs. Ultimately and with Mandela's help, the world's biggest tournament came to within a few short kilometers (miles) of Robben Island. Just too late for some.
"If maybe one had those godly powers, we could say to the graves, 'Get all those ex-islanders out of the graves and let them see what is happening,'" former prisoner and footballer Lizo Gladwell Sitoto said for a television documentary as the new South Africa wondrously prepared to host the world's biggest tournament.
And how thankful we all should be that we still had Nelson Mandela to feel that World Cup up close.
Follow Gerald Imray at http://www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP