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Peter Ndlovu's Football Tales – Nelson Mandela's Dinner Party

15 Jul

In February 2000, Nelson Mandela began hosting weekly dinner parties to celebrate 10 years of freedom.
On the third weekend in February it was the turn of the best footballers from each African nation to visit the great man himself. Being a well known Zimbabwean footballer, I had a gut feeling I would be asked to the party and to my delight my invite arrived in the post 4 days before we were due to attend. I was both nervous and excited; not only was I going to enjoy the company of a very special man, I was also going to be sat down with some on my biggest footballing nemesis, all of whom had claimed to be better than me at some time during my career.

The night itself came around very quickly. I opted for a navy suit, white shirt and dark brown belt and shoes. I looked quite dapper if I say so myself; Japhet N’Doram’s wife seemed to think so! Upon arrival, we were ushered through to a large dining area, and I noticed familiar faces straight away. Once everyone was seated, Nelson came into the room and greeted us all individually. “Ah, Peter”, he said as he placed his hands on my shoulders, “Beautiful goal against West Brom in ’95, a superb finish”. I smiled. All I could muster was a “Thank you”, before he moved on.

We started off with a salmon dish. It had a slight chilli taste to it if I remember correctly, but was lovely nonetheless. A sourbet course was not essential a few years back. We used wine and ale to cleanse our pallets like real men should! We moved straight onto the main; roast beef with all the trimmings, Nelson’s personal favourite. I thoroughly enjoyed mine, although the gravy was a little stodgy. Dessert was to be trifle, but we did not get round to eating this, and this is where my story gets rather interesting…..

As the drinks flowed, a few of the more boastful players started to act up. George Weah was giving it some, “I am the greatest African player of all time, I could win against 5 players on my own”, he declared, with food still in his mouth. He was eyeballing me, and several other players as he said this, but because of where we were, few were going to respond until;
“That’s b*llocks”, piped up Rashid Yekini. “I could beat you in a one on one any day, I believe the African Gods have blessed me with talent that no other man possesses”.
It started to get nasty with alcohol fuelled players squaring up to each other, Abedi Pele was screaming “LIAR, LIAR” at Weah, whilst waving a small giraffe ornamental centre piece in the air.

I decided to sit tight and watch the scenes unfold around me. Taribo West, who had managed to blag an invite by posing as Yekini’s girlfriend, was gunning for both Pele and Weah, leaning over the table to get to them. I looked at Hossam Hassan and frowned. He winked back at me but I could see the disbelief in his eyes as to what was happening.

Nelson stood up and thumped his hands down hard on the table. Everyone stopped in their tracks. Abedi Pele was mid sentence, “I’ll prove it to yo……”.

We all stopped and looked at Nelson, waiting for him to say something. He leaned forward slightly, his kaftan hung low revealing his chest. He cleared his throat and said in a deliberate but whispery manner,
“I have a full sized replica goal in the back yard. I will be goalkeeper and you will all take it in turn to take penalties at me. If you miss, you’re out. Score, and you’re through to the next round. We will settle this nonsense once and for all. In my eyes, you are all great players, otherwise you would not be here. But, if you behave like children, I will treat you like children. I hope I have made myself clear. Now, follow me to the back garden.”

I couldn’t believe it. This was unreal. Both Weah and Yekini looked utterly embarrassed but we all followed Mandela out through the double patio doors and into his back garden towards the goal.
“Winnie, Winnie”, he shouted, “Come out. You shall be ball boy”.
Winnie appeared from the kitchen, wearing nothing more than a silk dressing gown. She slipped on some trainers and joined us all outside. “Get yourself behind the goal then Dear”, said Nelson, and she scuttled off behind the net, positioning herself just in front of the conifers.

“Now”, proclaimed Nelson, “Get in line, no arguing. Let’s start this thing”. He pulled a pair of Sondico gloves from his kaftan, slipped them on and asked Roger Milla to tighten the velcro strap for him. We, the players, were all lined up and ready to shoot. I was to take the 7th penalty.

Everyone scored their first penalty. Fabrice Akwa was lucky, Nelson had tipped his shot onto the post but it crept in. The first casualty of the shoot-out was Dennis Oliech, who spooned his shot over and into the grateful arms of Winnie. Others soon followed, even the boastful Yekini fell by the wayside in the 4th round of penalties. I was calm, slotting my kicks home with aplomb and really enjoying myself.

Abedi Pele came third overall. Nelson pushed his shot to safety and it left just two players, myself and Weah to compete in the final. All the other players were sat round watching in anticipation. Nelson was doing the old ‘wobbly legs’ trick to try and put us off. Weah looked at me, “You’re going down, Peter Loser-love”, he snared. I said nothing, I wanted to maintain my focus and stay composed. Weah scored, I scored. Weah scored again, but so did I. This happened for 7 rounds and it was a truly great affair. As George went to take his 8th penalty, Nelson told us to stop. He declared us joint winners in front of everyone. I was happy. I knew I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone; yes, it would have been nice, but I had done well and been declared joint winner.

We were congratulated by our fellow players, and then asked to go back inside for our dessert. I was buzzing, it was a truly great night, being able to blast penalties at Nelson alongside fellow African players, some of whom I regard highly.
As we left that night, Nelson pulled me to one side. “Peter, you were the true winner out there today. A model professional who sees no need to boast”. As he said this, he slipped a small package into my pocket and walked off. The butler handed me my coat and I got into the waiting taxi outside.

I suppose you are wondering what Nelson had given me? Well, I opened up the pink tissue paper, and inside was a fridge magnet. On it, was the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. I smiled to myself. What a truly amazing day. What a man Nelson is and what a gesture. The magnet still sticks to my fridge and I will cherish it forever.

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