The England team meet up with Nelson Mandela today as part
The England team meet up with Nelson Mandela today as part of their trip to South Africa. John Barnes tells TheFA.com what it meant to him to have a private audience with one of the world's most famous men...
South Africa v England
International Friendly, Durban
Thursday 22nd May, 19.30
When John Barnes shook the hand of Nelson Mandela during a Liverpool tour of South Africa in 1994, he had little idea that a few days later he would be sipping tea with him in his private residence.
Barnes, TV presenter Rob McCaffrey and two white South African cameramen were invited to Mandela's house by the former President as part of a documentary - and it proved to be a memorable occasion.
"We couldn't find his house at first so we stopped to ask this old black man who happened to be walking on the street.
"He said he didn't know to begin with because he was suspicious about these white guys asking for Mandela.
"Then he recognised me and gave us directions. It was unbelievable to meet Mandela properly and have time for a real talk."
Barnes spent three hours with Mandela - who was imprisoned for 26 years during South African apartheid when people were judged by the colour of their skin.
"The England players will be excited to meet Nelson Mandela because he is the most famous man in South African if not the world.
"Where I was fortunate was to get to know him better in a small way. I remember a lot of the things he said, and it encouraged me to read his book and learn more about him when I got home.
"Even as a kid, I didn't have heroes that I would chase for their autograph. But Mandela was different - he is the only man I have been properly in awe of.
"He was clear about trying to take South Africa peacefully into the next stage of their history. Because the aura around him was so powerful, meeting him humbled me.
"He had experienced so much, had been through so much."
It was clear to Barnes, who had shaken Mandela's hand previously before a friendly game for Liverpool, that the leader was a big football fan. But what stuck in the mind most was his humility.
"Mandela genuinely didn't seem himself as a hero. He said better and braver people than him had died in Robben Island where they were locked up. He saw himself as one of the lucky ones who had been able to survive and that is why there was so much focus on him.
"It would be foolish to say that just by shaking Mandela's hand it will change the lives of any of the England players. But of course it will be something they will look forward to. And if they have a chance to speak to him at length I am sure they will be full of respect for him.
"I am not ashamed to say I had my picture taken with him and it hangs proudly on my wall at home.
McCaffrey, now a frontline presenter on Sky Sports, regards the unusual 'coffee morning' as one of the highlights of his career.
"Sometimes when you go to meet someone with great expectations, the reality can be disappointing. We went to meet Nelson Mandela expecting somebody special and he exceeded expectations.
"Footballers aren't immune from the rest of the world. I am sure they will find it fascinating to meet him."
John Barnes was speaking to Joe Bernstein
Did you know: The Granada documentary about South Africa which featured the meeting between John Barnes and Nelson Mandela received a nomination from the prestigious Royal Television Society.
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