Sport often dominates the popular media and not just the sports pages, especially when it comes to the activities of sports celebrities. It is clearly big business too, but sport is often dismissed as ‘just a game’; something we do for fun and in leisure time. However, sometimes we need to be reminded that we could take sport more seriously, because, as Nelson Mandela has said; 'sport has the power to change the world'.
News of a film, More Than Just a Game, about how jailed African National Congress leaders used the discipline of football to survive the trauma of imprisonment on Robben Island, which is shortly to be released in South Africa, demonstrates just how powerful sport can be. The heroes of this film are not sports celebrities but political heroes who fought apartheid.
Those who followed this football team in prison included Mandela himself, Walter Sisulu and the South African president Thabo Mbeki’s father, Govan Mbeki. The news that ANC members used football as a means of coping with being imprisoned without trial for their political beliefs supports Mandela’s claim about sport’s potential power.
Football in this instance offered discipline, not only on the pitch but in organisation skills which promoted self-respect in such difficult circumstances. Sport is much more than play and much more than competition and physical exercise; it is also about dignity and identity. Fifa, soccer’s international governing body, has recognised the club, the Makana Football Association, which prisoners formed 40 years ago in the Robben Island prison, reflecting the more recent acknowledgement that sport matters and that sport is also politically and socially important.
Although they don’t get the media coverage of the Premiership clubs and their superstars, organisations such as Kick it Out, Football Against Racism in Europe and Football Unites Racism Divides are all currently working to foreground the social and political potential of sport, for example, to combat racism and social exclusion.
Sometimes, rather than drowning in a sea of celebrity details, or even the successes and failures of our own team, we need to remember the broader picture and we need a reminder that sport can be about heroes as well as celebrities and about political struggle as well as winning and losing on the pitch; not that these things are not what matters too, especially in playing and following sport.