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Handshake of inspiration: My Tribute to Nelson Mandela
by Dan Gaspar, December 7th, 2013 3:50AM

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American Dan Gaspar is a member of the Iran national team coaching staff after having worked with Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz on the national teams of Portugal and South Africa, among other assignments. He recalls the day he was invited to Nelson Mandela's compound.

It was a small gesture, but of great importance to me. Without doubt, it was the highlight of my life. That profound handshake inspired me at the right moment in my life.  For me it was magical.  Everyone he touched was affected. You sensed his humility, integrity and compassion. You believed for that one moment you were the most important thing to him. What an amazing gift he shared with everyone.
 
I knew this day would come and I thought about it often. But it still makes your heart very heavy. It’s remarkable that Nelson Mandela’s passing was on the same day as the 2014 Brazil World Cup draw in Brazil. Nelson Mandela realized the power of sports and how it could make a political impact. His famous statement, “One Team, One Country” unified his nation. He loved the game of soccer because this game represented diversity and we all know how he felt about that.
 
My most profound memory was during the 2000 Nelson Mandela Cup. I was on the coaching staff of the South Africa national team. We were invited to Nelson Mandela's compound before our match against France.  Having had the opportunity to listen to Nelson Mandela share his journey to freedom while he was in prison for 27 years was amazing. We shook hands and to this day I can feel that handshake. Nelson Mandela was a former boxer. His hands were strong and thick.  Today when I encounter what I perceive as problems, I reflect back to our handshake and realize that my problems are minuscule compared to his. I realize how trivial my issues are. His smile transmitted peace and serenity. He was so gracious and patient with us all. As a result of soccer, I have had the good fortune to work with world-class coaches and players. With all respect to those stars, none has impressed or impacted me more with simply an introduction to Nelson Mandela. His legacy will be what he was and what he did.
 
I was a member of the Portugal national team that participated in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
 
We had a special guest visit the Portugal team. Francois Pienaar, the former rugby player who captained the Springboks when they won the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, spoke to the players and staff. If you've seen the movie Invictus with Matt Damon as Francois and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, then you are familiar with his story. The Portuguese players watched an edited-down version of the movie and the highlight of the presentation was having Francois there to give an incredible inspirational message to the team.
 
Number one, he asked the players to imagine. He asked them to imagine the support of the nation; those young boys and girls who wear their jerseys to bed the night before in great anticipation to watch them play.
 
Number two was no "ifs." Don't accept the word "if" like, "What if I don't make the right pass? What if I don't make the right tackle? What if I don't take the right shot?" He told the team to remove that word from their language.
 
And the third point was positive energy. From the moment you wake up, maintain positive energy because it's contagious. Francois truly captivated our players and he left them with one final message: Don't play with fear, but play with excitement.
 
Regarding the movie Invictus, Francois Pienaar said a few things. One was that the Springboks were much better than the movie portrayed. Secondly, it was not true that the players did not want to go the villages and visit the children to inspire them about rugby. They went and went willing.

Lastly and most importantly, he remembered vividly the moment he stood in the cell that Nelson Mandela lived in for 27 years. He raised his arms and he could touch each side of the wall.  He realized first hand how small the cell was that Nelson Mandela lived in. That feeling has remained with him ever since.

Imagine not being able to hold a baby in your arms and all the other privileges that life brings us for 27 years of confinement for what you believed and stand for.
 
The world mourns the death of a great leader and wonderful human being.


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