ROGAN TAYLOR: THE GREATEST NUMBER NINE OF ALL TIME

Nelson Mandela

It isn’t often we get almost the entire world enthusiastically celebrating the life of a one-time terrorist. But it happened this week. There are many, of course, who couldn’t allow themselves to describe Nelson Mandela in such a fashion, and much prefer the label, ‘freedom fighter’. But it’s only semantics. He violently opposed the state; suffered everything short of a death sentence, and won in the end.

Like every great player, he focussed on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition; in his case the white-dominated Apartheid govt of South Africa. Mandela’s brilliance showed in his recognition that ‘sport’ in general (and rugby & cricket in particular) was at the heart of the ruling white minority’s vision of themselves.

The successive Apartheid regimes used sport to demonstrate their distinctiveness and racial superiority over the black majority – and to our England’s eternal shame, we went along with it for decades (alongside others like Australia), making sure there were no black or ‘coloured’ faces in the teams we selected to play them. Even a few of our greatest footballers, like Stanley Matthews, were happy to take the Apartheid dollar.

The genius of Mandela was evident in this political judo; to use the apparent strength of his opponent (an addiction to sport) to defeat him. He turned sport upside down in South Africa. Instead of simply rejecting its traditional use to divide and separate people, he used it himself to unite a fractured nation.

The first big moment was the South African victory in the final of the rugby world cup in 1995. The emblem of the national rugby team, the Springboks – long associated with the essence of Apartheid – was both usurped and reformed in one moment when Mandela went down onto the pitch wearing the team strip.

It was like a brilliant judo throw. All the power of the symbol – hated by blacks – was used to defeat the intrinsic meaning it articulated. It would never be the same again.

The final victory was almost a decade later when, in 2004, South Africa was anointed as host to the 2010 Fifa World Cup. The game that brought the world together in a way no other sport can was captured and put to work, like a slave, for the unity of South Africa itself. That’s clever.

Nelson Mandela loved football, though he was probably a better boxer than a footie player. We have all learned how, during those almost three decades of imprisonment, much of it on Robben Island, alongside many of his ANC comrades who had engaged in the armed struggle, Mandela used organised football to provide relief and enjoyment for all the inmates.

As one of them, the unforgettably named, Tokyo Sexwale, reminded everyone in his keynote speech to a recent Sports Summit in the Cayman Islands:

‘Sport has the power to change the world. On Robben Island we defied every apartheid rule, law, legislation, regulation, we defied each one of those laws…But we never defied a single FIFA statute…the rules were sacrosanct…in football, millions of people are controlled by a single whistle.’

Perhaps Mandela was the greatest leader of any people in the entire 20th century. For his vision; integrity; generosity; outstanding courage; evident joy in life, and his love of football, who can compare? Fittingly, his Memorial Service, attended by the greatest assembly of world leaders past & present, took place in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium where the 2010 World Cup Final was played.

Mandela led the line; surely the greatest number nine?

Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.

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