They wanted soaring rhetoric, they wanted hope and above all they wanted President Barack Obama, who arrived very late but was greeted with a massive roar by those inside the stadium. Speaking of Mandela as his personal inspiration, the US leader declared: "He makes me want to be a better man."
The wild response made clear that here in South Africa at least he was seen as the heir to Nelson Mandela, the man whose death last Thursday the crowd might have come to mourn, but whose life they wanted most of all to celebrate.
Mr Obama was inspired to make an audacious speech -- even daring to lecture some of the 90 other world leaders sitting around him for failing to live up to the example set by "the great liberator".
Praising "a life like no other" he said: "It took a man like Mandela to liberate not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well." The speech was passionate and heartfelt. Americans had been through the same struggle for equal rights he said, adding: "Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that."
To people watching inside the FNB stadium and in the wider South Africa, he said: "The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph."
Heavy rain was blamed for rows of empty seats in the uncovered section of the stadium, along with travel delays and the refusal of the increasingly unpopular President Jacob Zuma to declare a national holiday.
But for the world leaders gathered in comfortable seats under cover, this was an extraordinary chance to get together in an atmosphere that was unexpectedly relaxed.
They were all dressed as for a funeral, but there were wide grins as Mr Obama and David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, posed for a "selfie" photograph with the rather glamorous prime minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Michelle Obama did not appear altogether pleased at just how well her husband was getting on with his new Danish friend and stared away from the scene.
The energised Mr Obama even shared a warm greeting with America's most awkward neighbour, Raul Castro, the leader of Cuba.
Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, spoke of Mandela's "awesome power of forgiveness, and of connecting people with each other" and added: "He has done it again. Look around this stadium and this stage."
FW de Klerk, the last apartheid leader who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr Mandela for bringing the system to an end, said he was, "sad but thankful that the nation is coming together in this wonderful way."
This is how he would have wanted it, he said.
This was thought to be the largest gathering of world leaders at an event of this kind since the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, but the mood among them was set by the brief they had been given that this was a celebration of a long and great life.
Mr Obama appeared troubled by the conditions at first, but relaxed so much during his speech that he even attempted a local accent, when praising Mandela as the embodiment of the African ideal of unity, Ubuntu.
He then became even bolder, as if being this close to Mandela's memory had charged him up, bringing back memories of his first, hope-filled campaign for the US presidency.
Attempting to live up to the crowd's expectations and take on Mandela's mantle, Mr Obama challenged his fellow presidents, prime ministers and heads of state to search their souls and ask whether they lived up to the example of the man they had come to praise.
"Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, how they worship and who they love," he said in the presence of leaders of Iran, China and Zimbabwe, among others.
Meanwhile, the Taoiseach hailed Mr Mandela as "without question the greatest statesman of our generation" during tributes in the Dáil.
Mr Kenny described him as "a global icon, a true champion of people of all nations."The mark he left on our world is indelible," he added. For almost an hour in the Dail, politicians from all sides of the House paid their respects. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
By Aislinn Laing and Neil Tweedie FNB stadium in Soweto