Just football? A World Cup manifesto

By staff writers
June 10, 2010

The 2010 World Cup will absorb acres of newsprint, whole swathes of the internet and hours of broadcast time in the coming weeks. For some this will be an occasion of great entertainment and interest, for others it will seem more of an imposition or a background annoyance. Whatever your view and experience of the specifically sporting issue, this huge global football tournament raises or illustrates all kinds of other important issues nationally and internationally.

During the last World Cup, in June and July 2006, Ekklesia launched a page of resources and activities under the umbrella title Give Injustice the Red Card. The initiative, which was picked up by print and broadcast media, highlighted research and campaigns by a number of reputable secular and faith-based NGOs, covers concerns such as:

* exploited labour
* global inequality
* aggressive nationalism
* sex trafficking, and
* Fairtrade football

This year, as the largest sporting competition on the planet commences on 11 June 2010 in South Africa – and on the African continent as a whole – for the first time, we wish to build on this by asking, ‘Just Football?’

The monicker has a number of resonances. Among other things, it points to the fact that there is no such thing as ‘sport alone’. Whether you call the game ‘football’ or ‘soccer’ (we’re firmly in the first camp!), whether you love it or hate it, what some call ‘The Beautiful Game’ is also major international business and a massive social and cultural influence, both for good and ill.

South Africa is particularly fertile soil upon which to recall this truth. From the 1970s, under the old apartheid era of institutional racism, systemic injustice and ‘separate development’ for divided ethnic groups, there were major international campaigns for change that had sport at their heart. Cricket and rugby boycotts of the white-dominated regime included the ‘Stop the Seventies Tour’ civil disobedience campaign – headed by Peter Hain, who subsequently entered the UK parliament in Wales and became a government minister.

This time, global football is being hosted in post-apartheid South Africa: a ‘rainbow nation’ which is very far from being problem free (poverty, AIDS, violence and youth disaffection are among it major challenges), but which has nevertheless made massive strides towards freedom and social justice compared to the old days of ingrained prejudice and racial discrimination.

In the run-up to World Cup 2010, the street celebrations have illustrated the capacity of football to bring people together – black and white, young and old, male and female, religious and non-religious, able-bodied and disabled, gay and straight. This is a capacity which ‘father of the nation’ Nelson Mandela noted and celebrated on 9 June.

Of course, football, like other sports, reflects human divisions and animosities as well as providing a framework for challenging them. So one of Ekklesia’s ‘Just Football?’ tasks will be to monitor how and where this is happening.

During the ‘boycott apartheid’ era, some in the sports world demanded that sporting competition should be kept ‘separate from politics’. But no sphere of human society, culture or belief can pretend to be a ‘politics free zone’. Issues of power and money operate at all levels of human endeavour and in every nook and cranny of our lives. This needs to be acknowledged in a positive way. The sporting boycott of South Africa played a pivotal role in building momentum in the campaign to end institutional racism, reaching people who would have been untouched by undiluted human rights and political discourses.

World Cup 2010, in the shape that it has now come into being, a multicultural extravaganza, would not have been possible without the defeat of apartheid. Its very staging is an example and inspiration to continue the struggle against ongoing injustices – particularly poverty, which continues to refuse to be ‘colour blind’. Black migrant workers and women domestic workers are among those who are still at the bottom of the heap in 21st century South Africa, where much has changed – yet for millions there is little difference to show for it. Globalisation is rapid, but unbalanced, unequal and environmentally unsustainable.

Ekklesia will therefore be following World Cup 2010 with interest – as a sporting celebration, yes, but also to highlight ten linked-in areas:

* Social justice and environmental concerns.
* The impact of the tournament on African life and development.
* Fairtrade practices contending with global branding and economic greed.
* Peace and war within and among the nations taking part.
* Empowerment for women, youth, LGBT people, and those living with disabilities.
* The corporate ‘big money’ dominance of modern football.
* Football fan power, cooperative trusts and Supporters Direct initiatives.
* The struggle against HIV-AIDS.
* The plight of sex workers and other exploited groups.
* The role of religion and belief, positively and less positively, for all involved.

In each of these areas we intend to point towards the key stories, events, arguments, issues, ideas and campaigns concerned with making football – and the world – more just, open, peaceful... and celebratory.

Given the huge focus on England in UK media coverage, we will also be including perspectives from Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland, where the St George flag and ‘Inger-land’ style aspirations and nationalism raises hackles as well as cultural and political questions about British identity and the future of these islands.

There will also be one or two ideas and alternatives for those seeking to escape ‘football fever’!

Already available are news and comment briefs on:

* Responding to HIV-AIDS risks during World Cup
* South Africa, Christianity and a historic sporting moment
* How financial secrecy is ruining poor countries and football alike
* Scots youngsters going to South Africa for football and community building
* The Youth World Cup
* Homelessness, England and the Street Child World Cup
* Football’s failure to tackle homophobia
* South Africa’s faith leaders gear up to support their team
* Fairtrade footballs

You can follow the whole news and comment trail and read a special ‘resource guide’, to be launched as World Cup 2010 gets underway, at: http://ekklesia.co.uk/WorldCup2010

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.