(HN, Opinion Piece, June 9, 2010) The Fifa Soccer World Cup kicks off on Friday. This is an opportune occasion to reflect on the fact that sport is meant to foster social cohesion, bring different cultures together in a celebration of healthy competition, and to overcome the diffidence and even contempt that all too often divide countries and communities in the political and social arenas.
The movie Invictus, about how former president Nelson Mandela used rugby to build a common national identity, was one such reflection. And the choice of SA, a country that renounced the institutionalised racism of apartheid, as the host of the World Cup, is a perfect opportunity and platform to renew our efforts to combat discrimination in all its forms.
As a victim of racism and a sports fan, I urge all who play or simply watch sport to use the World Cup as a catalyst to call for global action against intolerance and racism. These are scourges that affect countless women, men and children around the world and that must be challenged at every turn.
Indeed, fear, intolerance and xenophobia can all be combated with the diametrically opposed values of fair play and co-operation that are so central to team sports such as football. The World Cup is perhaps the highest expression of football’s ability to join millions of people from around the world in a common and joyous pursuit.
We all have our favourite team but let us not forget that the World Cup allows us to connect with others whose history, culture and traditions we may otherwise never have been exposed to. We are all enriched by this contact. Our common passion for football reinforces the bonds of community pride, makes explicit our shared aspiration for excellence, and channels and elevates our instinct of competition.
But let us also be vigilant about racism and other manifestations of intolerance that poison sport — particularly football — and that undermine its positive message and bring it into disrepute. This happens all too often when the supporters of competing teams use slurs and even violence to vilify and attack their opponents.
Regrettably, even the players have at times been prone to such despicable behaviour. Professional footballers are rightly obliged to uphold the highest standards of sportsmanship, both ethically and under Fifa’s code of conduct, which includes provisions on nondiscrimination. Yet, on occasion, rich clubs and rich national bodies have escaped more severe sanction by paying derisory fines after serious racist incidents during matches.
National football authorities everywhere must back their strong rhetoric with serious and consistent disincentives. Manifestations of racism or intolerance in or around the stadiums during the World Cup should be swiftly addressed and the perpetrators isolated. The clear message of the World Cup must be that there is no place for racism and intolerance in sport.
At the same time, the World Cup should maximise the potential of this sport to educate ever-expanding constituencies and attract talent irrespective of social status and position in life. For many poor athletes, soccer has offered a way out of exclusion. Their accomplishments have inspired others to follow suit. In every society, successful sportsmen and women are role models whose behaviour is closely scrutinised and even emulated. Young minds are especially influenced by both positive and negative messages received from those they respect, particularly their sports heroes.
Ultimately, the real winners of this year’s World Cup will be those who celebrate and uphold in words and in deeds its values of fair play, honest competition, respect and tolerance both on and off the field. Let’s kick discrimination off the field. Let’s tackle exclusion. Let’s put racism offside.
Pillay is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This first appeared in South Africa's Business Day Newspaper