When FIFA awarded South Africa the 2010 World Cup, Nelson Mandela proclaimed “The people of Africa learnt the lesson of patience and endurance in their long struggle for freedom. May the reward brought by the FIFA World Cup prove that the long wait for its arrival on African soil has been worth it.” Six years after, we await the tournament’s latest installment: Russia 2018, which has been met by concerns for the safety of LGBT fans and players alike – concerns stoked by recently ratified anti-gay legislation. This, on top of rampant racism committed by various Russian Football Union supporter groups, has compounded the state of affairs enough to motivate this short retrospect into the not dissimilar troubles once facing the game in South Africa. We begin at a seemingly inapt moment in history.
GEORGIA (USA, NOT EUROPE)
In 1967, Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves threw their batting helmet into the soccer ring by founding the Atlanta Chiefs and entering the club into the newly formed National Professional Soccer League(*USA). The NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association in 1968 to form the first incarnation of the North American Soccer League, carrying the Chiefs over to the new organization. The Chiefs saw almost instant success, including the signing of future South African legend Kaizer Motaung from the Orlando Pirates in 1968. With the Chiefs, Motaung would win the league and top goal scorer honors, and score a brace in one of two wins against Manchester City – all in that first season.
“Who could doubt that sport is a crucial window for the propagation of fair play and justice? After all, fair play is a value that is essential to sport.” -Nelson Mandela
The situation in Georgia, sadly, mirrored that of Motaung’s home country as it too was experiencing severe racial inequality. Discrimination in professional sports, as in many aspects of American society at the time, defied the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Apartheid, having been in effect across South Africa for two decades, heavily asserted it’s policies on organized soccer in the racially balkanized nation. The austere disparities of those early policies gave birth to a highly fractured structure in which players, officials, and staff of “African”, “Bantu”, “Indian”, and “white” assignment were relegated to respective leagues. The increasingly exposed realities of Apartheid led to assenting criticism from the international community and the country eventually being stripped of official FIFA recognition in 1961 after only eight years of membership. South Africa attempted to enter an all-white squad into the 1966 World Cup and an all-black squad into the 1970 World Cup, but was refused both times.
FROM NORTH AMERICA TO SOUTH AFRICA
Upon his 1979 return to Johannesburg, Motaung assembled former Orlando Pirates teammates and launched his Soweto take on the Chiefs. Due to Apartheid restrictions, however, the new club, Kaizer Chiefs F.C.(who wouldn’t name a club after themselves?), was forced to play in the “black only” National Premier Soccer League(*South Africa). This stage lasted for six years until, when in 1977, the NPSL historically merged with the “white only” National Football League to establish the “non-racial” second phase of the NPSL. Though technically integrated, categorically “white” teams playing in the second NPSL were limited to fielding a maximum of three black players per match. Divisions within the second NPSL leadership over anti-Apartheid advancements caused a schism in 1985, splitting South African club soccer once again into two at odds bodies: the racially inclusive and dominant National Soccer League, and the less significant third phase of the NPSL. The anti-Apartheid movement claimed it’s biggest victory in 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment. “While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners.” Mandela later recalled. In 1991, as if by inspiration, and after decades of strife, respective league officials successfully consolidated the FA and subsequently redeemed the country’s standing with FIFA just one year later, ultimately paving the way for the country’s 1998 World Cup debut. As the World Cup commenced in the USA for the first time, the admittance of the African National Congress during the 1994 elections brought Apartheid to a virtual end and moved to reunify black and white South Africa. In a poetic decision, after a decade of coexistence, the NSL and the third NPSL mutually reunited in 1995 to form the Premier Soccer League, which is still the top flight today. South Africa won the bid to host the 2010 World Cup less than ten years later and Kaizer Chiefs went on to become arguably the most successful club in South African soccer history.
GOING EAST WITH HOPE
To draw direct parallels between the game under Apartheid and the current situation in Russia would be diminutive to the former and impetuous to the latter. Nonetheless, it’s important to acknowledge the destructive similarities that are there. In the same year that the NPSL(South Africa) reestablished itself as the country’s first “non-racial” league, the 1961 FIFA ban was ranked among the worst sacrifices made at the cost of segregation. This survey was conducted on white South Africans. Progress was made not only in parliament, but also in the minds of (all)South Africans, bolstered by painfully justified boycotts from the international community. In the same sentiment, positives must be gleaned with regards to Russia: international whistleblowing, player reprehensions, and increased public attention, all have pressured both FIFA and the Russian government for action. Just as soccer stimulated integration in South Africa, it very well may be the catalyst for reformation in Russia and beyond.