Friday, July 02, 2010

Why Do We Care About Football?

Book Review
Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, More than Just a Game: Football v Apartheid, Collins, London, 2008.


Most people are familiar with the famous line by one of those Pommy Soccernumaries, "Some people say that football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with this view. Football is much more important than that." A more obscure line comes from this book, from Indres Naidoo, imprisoned on Robben Island for many years and now a member of South Africa'a Parliament: "... we knew that sports is much too important to be just fun."

What do we do with lines like this? Of course the already converted know deep down that they're dead right, and say "Oh yeah!" but nobody can blame the unconverted for thinking that they're sheer nonsense. How can we say such things?

More that just a Game is a history of a football league, but it starts with a time when the prisoners on Robben Island (this is the place Nelson Mandela was incarcerated incidentally) were not allowed to play any sport at all. The opening chapters were my own first real introduction to the history of apartheid itself, the horrible repression that occurred and the barbaric, sickening conditions on the Island itself. And even for this I found the book valuable.

Of all things for the prisoners to lobby for - suffering beatings and periods of confinement and starvation to do so, over several years - the ability to play football was front and center. And they did not merely want to be given a ball to kick-about with. They wanted a League, and bit by bit, with meticulous organisation, and helped by outside pressures, they got it.

What is really astounding is this level of organisation. They drafted a constitution, had nine clubs at the peak, three divisions, rules for transfers, appeals processes and committees and a referees union. The thing that got the authors of the book going was the voluminous documentation of the whole thing, all handwritten but all in formal, legalese tone. Most of this, meanwhile, was done completely behind the prison authority's backs.

So while the sporting may have helped the prisoners' spirits and fitness, it was the organisation itself that educated the prisoners in skills that they now are using to run the country. Surprising and fascinating stuff all.

The book is not some side-story by football fans. It is real history, researched and written by historians, about a story which, if not told, would leave a real gap in accounts of the overthrow of apartheid. There is no exageration here as far as I can see, and it's not all flattering, as in the account of the 'Atlantic Raiders Affair' which is essentially a long-winded legal battle between typically self-righteous athletes over a referee decision. Even in the latter case, we see prisoners develop real skills of advocacy and argument, which would later serve them in struggle and in running the country.

Football on the island led to other sports of course, and we witness a version of the absurd tension between football codes that we are familiar with in Australia. Fortunately they come to the conclusion that the important thing is sport, and in my view Australian football codes would do well to learn parallel lessons - that the modern enemies of soccer are not rugby and AFL but apathy, bad nutrition, poor health, inadequate parkland and computer games. Anyway I digress.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and it taught me a lot about this strange, brave country.

So what's the answer to the question? Why is football, which let's face it is an arbitrary human contrivance with no real stakes, so important? Somewhere in the midst of reading this book I came up with an answer, and it's about freedom.

Those of us who believe in a religion do so because we feel obliged to. We must. We might believe in ideals or political causes because we see them as necessary. But we believe in football because we can, because we are free to. Millions are, of course (as were some on the Island) equally free to not give a shit about football and that doesn't matter a jot. But those of us who do, believe in it because we are free. It is a highly social, organised, universal, articulated expression of human freedom.

Incidentally, 1GOAL is less than 200,000 off the 10,000,000 mark. If you haven't signed up (costs nothing), think seriously about it. Education for all is a very worthy goal, and I believe in it because it is essential for the furtherance of human civilisation.

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