What has been the most significant moment of this World Cup so far? For me, it didn’t take place on the pitch, or even in Brazil, but more than 7,000 miles away in a simple room in Tehran. There it was that a graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University, now president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, put on the internet a picture of himself watching his country’s opening game against Nigeria, and applauding “the boys” during a hard-fought draw.
In recent years, politicians have frequently come a cropper posting pictures of themselves online. But however misjudged some of them might be, they rarely do it without a purpose. And President Rouhani’s photo was no exception.
At a time of severe crisis and horrific violence in Iraq, when western governments are almost being forced to extend the hand of friendship to Iran out of mutual interest in stopping the advance of the ISIS jihadists, President Rouhani chose that moment to send a simple message to the West. Wearing a football shirt and tracksuit bottoms instead of his usual robes, some simple refreshments and the remote control in front of him, he looked like any armchair football fan anywhere in the world. And that was the point. His message was: I’m no different from you; our interests are the same; don’t be scared to reach out to me.
Whether this gambit, and the wider diplomatic effort it signifies, are ultimately successful and lasting remains to be seen. But it was a powerful reminder of the way that football continues to act as a symbol of unity and a driver of change.
When I was researching my new book, The 10 Football Matches That Changed The World (Biteback, £16.99), I came across countless similar instances when football transcended mere sport and became a crucial factor in starting and stopping wars, in bolstering or deposing tyrants, and in shaping the social forces that divide cities and nations – or, in some cases, unite them. Its impact is as dynamic, contradictory and compelling as football itself. What other game could have been both an incubator of racism here in Britain and in many other parts of Europe, but also help bring down the Apartheid regime in South Africa?
From the moment football was codified and taken out of Britain’s public schools, it has been a constant companion of change across the globe. The difficult part of writing a book on the games that changed the world wasn’t finding 10 crucial games; the problem was cutting the list down to just 10. Many of the people I spoke to about the book thought about it for a few seconds before asking: “Are you going to include that game between…?” More often than not, their candidate for inclusion on the shortlist was a match involving their own favourite club.
But I also found something else, especially talking to my friends and with organisations like Cafod that I work with every week in my capacity as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. They would tell me not about the famous matches that have shaped history, but of the people they have come across in their missionary or development work whose lives, communities and futures have been transformed by football: from young orphans and mentally scarred child soldiers to the teenage members of drug gangs. From the most remote villages in West Africa to the cramped favelas of Brazil, they told me stories which could inspire another book in themselves.
In Liberia, when the hellish civil war of the 1990s finally came to an end, a whole generation of children kidnapped to serve in militias – forced to see and commit unspeakable acts of horror – faced a future without hope. With Cafod’s support, many found a way through by forming football teams and leagues, restoring some sense of normality and community to lives that had been robbed of them. They formed a champion team – the Liberian All-Stars – which was able to travel to Britain, promoting a message of peace and reconciliation, and meeting football superstars Sir Bobby Robson and Thierry Henry in the process.
In the Korogocho slum in Nairobi, under the leadership of a Catholic priest, Fr John Weebotsa, young people who had seen their community viciously torn apart in the violence that followed the 2008 elections were able to come together at the St John’s Sports Centre and find a togetherness in sport that no one thought could be restored.
In the favelas of Recife in northern Brazil, a few miles from the World Cup stadium, a 74-year old Irish priest named Fr Tony Terry brings together young people from warring drug gangs for football training, matches and tournaments, as he has done with Cafod’s support ever since the 1980s. And with every lesson he teaches them about discipline and teamwork, and every handshake they exchange on the pitch, Fr John hopes they are one step closer to stopping the endless cycle of violence that blights the futures of the whole community.
For young boys and girls growing up in the poorest areas of Brazil, Kenya or Liberia, they may not ever become famous footballers, but their love of those and other pursuits – and the lessons they learn while enjoying them in Cafod-funded projects – could be their best hope of surviving and overcoming their troubled childhoods.
In my book, I have written about events in history through the experiences of just a few football matches. But football’s story isn’t yet complete – far from it. This is the first generation where football is global and digital, as President Rouhani reminded us. Every minute of everyday somewhere in the world, a child is kicking a ball or being introduced to the beautiful game for the very first time. For many, as they travel through life, football will become a constant companion, and they will forever remember the parents, siblings, teachers and priests who first inspired that love. And even when the games they play are not changing history, they are indisputably changing the world – one child, one life and one community at a time.
Jim Murphy MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development