CRYSTAL Palace legend Geoff Thomas has recalled how close he was to meeting Nelson Mandela. Thomas and his Eagles team-mates flew out to South Africa in 1992 to play a couple of friendly matches and expected to meet the former President, who sadly passed away last week. "I think Arsenal got invited out there, but for some reason they couldn't do it," Thomas exclusively told the Advertiser sports desk. "(Former Palace chairman) Ron Noades took the opportunity up, and it meant a lot to all of us really to go out there and to meet Nelson Mandela. "But it didn't happen unfortunately. I've been told he was called to a UN meeting, but at the time we were told there was a massacre. "I got told he was sent to sort something out, so sadly I didn't get to meet him. "I remember we played two games. We played Kaiser Chiefs in Johannesburg and then flew out to Durban and played Orlando Pirates. "I think we beat Kaiser Chiefs 4-0 and then I think we got beaten in Durban. We were probably a bit jet-lagged by then." And Thomas remembers the second game in particular for its intimidating atmosphere before kick-off too. He said: "I remember, especially in Durban, the Zulus in a Zulu area. They had them out doing a dance before the game, which was probably a little bit threatening – and probably why we lost the game! "Mark Bright was there, plus Gareth Southgate, Chris Coleman, Andy Thorn and Eric Young. I can't remember Ian Wright being there, maybe he had gone by then in pre-season." Mandela has been mourned by millions around the world since his death and Thomas was full of praise for him. But the former Palace skipper saw the effect Mandela had on the people of South Africa, once witnessing a professional footballer breaking down in tears. "When you just mention his name, Nelson Mandela is one of a few," said Thomas. "He's like a Martin Luther King sort of person, but without too much research, the man did so many fantastic things. "He changed history and has changed thousands and thousands of people. But he's been an inspiration to millions beyond that. "He was such a softly-spoken guy and brought everyone together. What really inspires you is the power of sport. "He used the power of Rugby Union with the World Cup in 1995 to bring people together. "I was at a dinner once and Stephen Pienaar, the Everton midfielder, spoke about that experience - his emotions just welled up in front of around 300 people. "Nelson Mandela was certainly one of the good guys."
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