Sunday, November 25, 2007

Football, Development, Peace?

I know that picking up the FT might be ideologically difficult for some readers, but anyone who doesn't is missing out on some of the best football writing in the world. Usually, it's from the brilliant Simon Kuper, who has a weekly column there - but this week it's from Jonathan Wilson, who has left his usual East European stomping grounds to write a moving story about football in Robben Island prison during the apartheid era.

It's a great story, of course. The prisoners formed not only teams (the Pan-African Congress and the ANC each fielding four teams) but a full FA with committees, hearings and appeals boards. The point was not bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, but rather to create institutions that were both free of apartheid and conformed to democratic and legal norms. In short, football permitted them to create a space in which their own "rule of law" existed.

Stories like this that seem to show football's role in development and peace are manna from heaven to FIFA propagandists. And there are plenty of stories like this in Africa. Take for instance the story of Kenya's Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), set up by Canadian Bob Munro. The MYSA is arguably one of Kenya's most important development organizations, giving impoverished children the chance to participate in organized football activities in return for community service work and an abjuration of violence both on and off the pitch. So important has it become both in football terms (its senior squad, Mathare United, made the African Cup Winners Cup in 1998, 2000 and 2002), and political terms that it has become a perceived threat to the Kenyan government, which tried (unsuccessfully) to have Mr. Munro deported as a result.

This football-as-a-space-of-laws idea was taken even further in Liberia after the end of that country's vicious civil war. Bosco United Sports Association (named after the order of of the Salesians of Don Bosco, to which the project's Scottish-born founder, the Reverend Joe Glackin, belongs) was designed specifically to give former child combatants in Monrovia a chance to play. Any recidivism into violence results in expulsion from the club and hence from the social benefits and protection the club provides. Moreover, within the lines, the existence of a set of rules enforced by an impartial referee provides formerly lawless youth with the idea of the rule of law.

The peacemaking angle of football went even further in Rwanda. Here, the attempt to use mixed football teams as a means of reconciling Hutus and Tutsis has been seen both at the local level (for example at the Esperance Football Club which has received considerable FIFA funding) and at the national level. The country's qualification for the 2004 African Cup of Nations (which came in part thanks to heavy financial support from the country's by football-mad and, reputedly, Arsenal-supporting President Paul Kagame) was widely seen as a symbol of national hope and re-generation.

Now, these are great stories - but do they mean anything? And can football possibly withstand the burden of expectations that is being placed upon it?

There is nothing intrinsic to football as a sport that makes it better suited to these kinds of projects than other sports. The fact that it is football and not - say - basketball is simply a reflection of pre-existing social preferences.

It is also arguable that it is fundamentally hypocritical for the footballing community to take credit for successes in peace-building projects, while simultaneously placing any responsibility for violent incidents around the game (e.g. this month's events in Italy) on "society at large". Either football has an effect on peace (or the lack of it) or it doesn't.

My own feeling is that this stuff is largely ephemeral. For every example one can cite about the peacemaking effects of football (e.g. Rwanda), one can cite a counter-example of football as an instigator of violence and chaos (the Soccer War of 1970, the Battle of Zagreb in 1991). Football, like all sports, is merely a vessel, and one can pour either wine or vinegar into it.

It would be nice to believe in the healing power of football, but despite great anecdotes like that of Robben Island, it's hard to sustain such belief in the cold light of day.


Post a Comment

<< Home