Thanks to people of the calibre of Niall Quinn and Darren Bent, and many more than we could hope to mention, Sunderland AFC have played a commendable role, through such campaigns as Show Racism the Red Card, in combating racial prejudice and discrimination in football. The opening of the World Cup in South Africa – sadly, after all, in Nelson Mandela’s absence following the death of his 13-year-old great granddaughter in an accident after last night’s concert – sends out a powerful message of its own today. But with thanks to Jeremy Robson, whose exchanges with me here a week ago inspired these thoughts in today’s edition of The National, Abu Dhabi, only so much progress has been made …
After the French football team defeated the much-fancied Brazilians in the 1998 World Cup final, two snappy phrases became part of the legacy of a swashbuckling victory: un-deux-trois-zéro to describe the impressive scoreline and blanc-black-beur acclaiming the multiracial composition of the team.
It was tempting to believe the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité was now, at last, one that could also fully respect and assimilate the large immigrant population that is a relic of its colonial past.
A black player, Lillian Thuram, born in Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, had scored twice in the semi-final; the lionhearted midfielder Zinédine Zidane, Marseille-born son of Algerian immigrants, had headed two of the goals that destroyed Brazil.
But as the French class of 2010 prepares to play Uruguay on the first day of the South African tournament, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the uplifting sentiments of 12 years ago had triggered a new era of racial harmony.
In France, it is hardly uncommon to hear complaints about the number of black faces in the national team (the retirement of Zidane means there is no longer a single squad member of Maghbrebin origins). Such thoughts are not confined to followers of Jean-Marie le Pen’s far right, anti-immigration Front National. During the 2006 World Cup, Georges Frêche a prominent socialist politician, took issue with the ethnic make-up of the French football team.
“There are nine blacks out of 11,” he told a French regional newspaper. “The normal number would be three or four. This would reflect our society. But if there are so many, it is because whites are useless. I’m ashamed for this country. Soon, there will be 11 blacks.”
The Socialist Party later expelled him, but it would be a mistake to assume his views were not shared by many who would indignantly deny holding racist thoughts.
France is not alone. For all those hopes that football, indeed sport as a whole, is the great leveller, a pursuit capable of bringing unity to a divided world, reality still falls short of that lofty objective.
The scheduled presence, brief or otherwise, of Nelson Mandela at today’s opening ceremony is a powerful symbol of the notion that a sport played or admired by all nationalities and races should be one area of human activity where principles of fair play, tolerance and respect rise above inequality, suspicion and hatred.
After all, the 2010 World Cup is not merely a grand sporting occasion, but an event that strikingly illustrates the emancipation of Africa. Twenty years after the laborious process of dismantling apartheid began, there is emotional potency to the choice of South Africa as the first country in the continent to stage the tournament.
The idealist cherishes the dream that a smooth, trouble-free competition, with talented Africans and Asians playing their full part in a showcase of sporting excellence, will contribute to the broader mission to end injustice. The realist notes that sport itself has ways of reinforcing some of the more obstinate of society’s divisions.
Racism was at the root of much of the hooliganism that shamed the English game for decades. Some of the perpetrators had fixed or passing acquaintance with the far right, anti-immigration parties that saw the disaffected white working class as fertile recruiting ground.
Trouble at and around football grounds may be on the wane, but combating racial hostility has been an arduous task, and England is not the only country where it has proved hard to break down.
The Inter Milan player Mario Balotelli, born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, is Italian football’s first homegrown black star – many observers felt he deserved a place in the 2010 World Cup squad – but has faced appalling abuse at Serie A stadiums. Nor is the phenomenon restricted to football: the black British Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton has suffered racial taunts in Spain.
Sport arouses strong passions, and this can be healthy – as each World Cup image of happy, exuberant fans shows. But the partisan nature of sporting allegiance ensures that differences of any sort will be exploited.
Sixty-five years have passed since the end of the Second World War. Yet deep antipathy remains, based in part on that conflict, between some fans of the Netherlands and Germany. Relations between followers of the two big Glasgow football clubs, Rangers and Celtic, continue to be influenced by bigotry rooted in the history of religious and political divide in Ireland.
Despite the success of representatives of ethnic minorities in forcing their way in the national teams of, for example, the United States, England and France, the achievements have done relatively little to eliminate discrimination and feelings of alienation in society as a whole.
But there are brighter signs to report, too. Around the world, we find ample evidence of sporting authorities taking action, albeit belatedly in some cases, to eradicate racism. The Australian Football League – controlling body for the game popularly known as Aussie rules – has won praise for its efforts to stamp out racism; prominent sportsmen and women in the UK and United States have enthusiastically thrown their weight behind initiatives to end discrimination and challenge negative attitudes.
As the World Cup kicks off, the words of two Australians, Patrick Weber and his brother Andrew, on the launch of their web documentary Football Nomad, may strike a resonant chord: “We believe the most captivating thing about the World Cup is the bubbling mix of cultures on display.”
How Nelson Mandela will rejoice tonight if, when the French team lines up for the game against Uruguay in Cape Town, millions of viewers in France take more pleasure in that bubbling cultural mix than annoyance at the number of players who do not know the words of La Marseillaise.
* Frerieke’s caption for his Flickr photo seems worthy of repetition:
“Ephraim Zim 01 has just finished his training. 2010 is around the corner…will he still make it into Bafana Bafana?? …never say never.. Last season he was sourced by Ajax Cape Town to do the selection… last year he didn’t have money / support to go to the training … this year, his manager Fre sees potential!