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Sports world reacts to Nelson Mandela’s death

Former South African president Nelson Mandela celebrates his birthday with family in Qunu, South Africa, on July 18, 2012. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Schalk van Zuydam

Nelson Mandela’s death left world soccer in deep mourning, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Thursday, while new International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach paid tribute to the anti-apartheid icon as a man who understood the unifying power of sport.

Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.

Blatter said in a statement that “Nelson Mandela will stay in our hearts forever,” and ordered that the 209 flags of the world soccer body’s member countries at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland be lowered and flown at half-staff.

“It is in deep mourning that I pay my respects to an extraordinary person, probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela,” Blatter said. “The memories of his remarkable fight against oppression, his incredible charisma and his positive values will live on in us and with us.”

Bach said Mandela was “a true statesman.”

“A remarkable man who understood that sport could build bridges, break down walls, and reveal our common humanity,” Bach said.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest political leaders of any era, the reaction from many of the world’s biggest sporting organizations were clear testimony to the enormous affinity Mandela had for sport – and to sport’s great love for the Nobel Prize winner.

Tiger Woods remembered his meeting with Mandela in South Africa.

“I got a chance to meet him with my father back in ’98,” Woods said. “He invited us to his home, and it was one of the most inspiring times I’ve ever had in my life.”

Boxing great Muhammad Ali said Mandela inspired others to “reach for what appeared to be impossible.”

“What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge,” Ali said in his statement released by the Ali Center. “He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale.”

More a follower of boxing and running in his youth, Mandela became a famous fan of nearly every sport – including many the South African wouldn’t have been too familiar with.

“Nelson Mandela was one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “Our thoughts and hopes are with the Mandela family and the people of South Africa, and while we mourn his passing, we know that his legacy and quest for equality will endure.”

Mandela’s appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in a green and gold South African team jersey to unite his previously fractured country is considered one of world sport’s defining moments, and a part of South African legend.

International Rugby Board President Bernard Lapasset, who spent time with Mandela during the tournament, said the former president changed the sport – once a symbol of white apartheid – completely in his country by his actions during that event.

“I was honored to be with him during the historic days of Rugby World Cup 1995 and saw his incredible impact on his nation and his people,” Lapasset said. “His wisdom, intelligence and sheer presence was a wonder to behold.”

The South African Rugby Union, perhaps the sporting body closest to Mandela after his famous gesture at a rugby game nearly two decades ago, said it shared in South Africa’s overwhelming sadness at Mandela’s passing.

“It was our privilege to have lived in this country during his lifetime,” SARU President Oregan Hoskins said.

Toward the end of his life, Mandela was still instrumental in helping South Africa win its bid to host the 2010 soccer World Cup – after an initial failure in trying to land the 2006 tournament. It was fitting, then, that his last public appearance came at a day of sporting celebration, when he greeted the crowds ahead of the World Cup final on the outskirts of Soweto to mark the historic first football showcase in Africa.

“When he was honored and cheered by the crowd at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium on 11 July 2010, it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced,” Blatter said. “For him, the World Cup in South Africa truly was “a dream come true”.