World's most famous man meets former politician from South Africa

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The Independent Online

He is a man whose extraordinary dignity in the teeth of almost unimaginable suffering has made him a global icon. He is a man who, with rare charisma, led his nation out of the darkness and into the light. Even to the secular world he is treated like a god, a messiah, a prophet. He has captured the most glittering prize our planet has to offer: a Spice Girl. And yesterday, in Johannesburg, he met Nelson Mandela.

It was the photo-opportunity to end all photo-opportunities, and both men knew it. But megawatt fame and megawatt flashbulbs no longer dazzle them. They took the encounter in their elegant stride, the former South African president looking properly respectful as he finally came face to face with the captain of the England football team.

After all, Mandela was doubtless aware that the decades he spent in solitary confinement are as nothing by comparison with the injustices and indignities suffered by David Beckham, from that sending-off against Argentina during the 1998 World Cup and the unpleasantly loud booing that followed him almost wherever he went for very nearly a year afterwards, to the stigmata-type wound he suffered when his volatile manager at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, accidentally sent a boot flying into his face during a dressing-room tantrum.

Moreover, as the pair clasped hands, Mandela was quite obviously ruefully reflecting that there is absolutely no point staring at a wall for 30 years if you don't ever learn to bend a free-kick around it into the top left-hand corner. It's no wonder that he seemed to genuflect slightly (although it may have been a touch of arthritis).

"Let me introduce myself," said the 84-year-old statesman, as Beckham loomed into view over the shoulder of the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson. And if Mandela can make a joke about his relative obscurity alongside Beckham's celebrity, then who am I not to keep it going? And it is a joke, isn't it, this endless obsession with Beckham? A frequently hilarious one, too. Especially the loopy preoccupation - his and ours - with his hairstyle.

Inevitably, Mandela was asked about its latest incarnation, the so-called corn-row effect. "I am too old to express an opinion on the latest development by young people," he said, to roars of dutiful laughter. He then ushered on his grandchildren and their friends, who filed with a mixture of humility and excitement past the world's most famous man, while the second-most famous man looked on, proudly.