As the world waves farewell to one of its greatest icons, Liverpoolfc.com contributor Melissa Reddy pays tribute to Nelson Mandela; a man who was larger than life...
There it was. The smile that refused to disappear in the darkness of his prison cell, that couldn't fade in the face of countless acts of injustice, that refused to be repressed by the attempts to reduce his life. Nelson Mandela flashed his historic expression as he was surrounded by the Liverpool squad of 1994, who proudly held aloft the new South African flag.
That iconic picture was taken in May, less than a month after Mandela was sworn in as the first black President in the country's maiden democratic elections. Liverpool's ground-breaking tour of South Africa is immortalised in that image. It is also how Reds supporters around the globe relate to Madiba; a great man, who stood beside a great team, during the most important stanza of a nation's history.
But, he was much more than that. Much more than could ever be described in any tribute or reflection. He was an ordinary man, who had an extraordinary spirit. Unconquerable. Unbreakable. At a time when ambition, equality and opportunity were severely oppressed, Mandela unshackled the minds of millions. He had the courage, strength, belief and patience to unite a country that was raised and ruled by separation.
But his impact wasn't just political. It wasn't just in 1994. It wasn't just at memorable events. Mandela's contribution to South Africans is felt on a daily basis. He gave us the gift of choice, the ability to chase dreams, the freedom to be and do all things - equally.
There is no aura greater than Madiba's. He was effervescent, infectious, witty and engaging. He had time for everyone, even though his time was never truly his.
"The warmth of the man and his sheer personality was remarkable. He spoke to every one of us individually and seemed very knowledgeable, both about football and about Liverpool Football Club. His enthusiasm was remarkable and he even put on a Liverpool shirt. It was a great honour for all of us to be there," former Reds boss Roy Evans enthused after Mandela spent time with the team during their last game in the '94 tour.
That was Madiba. He was the hero of heroes. "He is the only man I have been properly in awe of... I am not ashamed to say I had my picture taken with him and it hangs proudly on my wall at home," said John Barnes.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez, who worked in South Africa as a television pundit during the 2010 World Cup, also paid tribute to the legendary statesman. "I think he's a leader we have all been inspired by and gained inspiration from and obviously there is a sadness at his passing. But it will be more, in my eyes, a celebration of what he brought, not just to South Africa but to humanity.
"He was as impressive a human being as I have ever seen."
While the Nobel Prize winner will always be remembered for his love of football, and Liverpool FC, he was also a leader to several secret agents from Merseyside, who helped fight for freedom in South Africa.
"I went there, along with other people from Merseyside and London because there was an important job to do to help the cause of freedom. None of us talked about it. We just got on with our lives," revealed Bill McCaig, a retired teacher who also acted as an agent for the ANC at the height of apartheid.
Other Liverpool freedom fighters included: Eric Caddick, George Cartwright, Pat Newman, Gerry Wan and Roger O'Hara, whose heroics are detailed in the book, 'London Recruits - The Secret War Against Apartheid'.
There are also tales of workers from Merseyside's car plants hiding banned literature in cars that were exported to South Africa as a way of delivering messages to the oppressed majority.
The city of Liverpool and Mandela have a lot in common; fighting for beliefs and against great injustices with persistence and a huge sense of pride. The desire for a better life, and a determination to fight against stereotypes and false truths. It was why he was awarded the Freedom of Liverpool, shortly after he became President in 1994.
"Who could doubt that sport is a crucial window for the propagation of fair play and justice? After all, fair play is a value that is essential to sport," he wisely said.
Mandela played the greatest throughball to South Africa, and the world. He proved the ultimate goal could be scored with reconciliation.