Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Sports, Politics, Killing, Healing

I've been watching the new Amazon Prime series, This is Football and so far, it's good. There are a total of six episodes, each written or at least co-written by journalist and author John Carlin, who also is one of the creators of the show.  He's someone who likes to write about the area where sports and politics mix; he's the person who wrote the book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, on which the movie Invictus is based.  The film is pretty good, but the book is better and, not surprisingly, the book goes into a lot more detail about the events leading up to and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  

The core of the story revolves around how newly elected president Nelson Mandela used sports as a way to help unite a very divided country around one particular thing.  By the time the 1995 World Cup final was played, millions of black South Africans were rooting for the virtually all-white South African team, the Springboks, to win the tournament.  This was a remarkable turnabout because until then the Springboks, the pride of Afrikaaners, had represented apartheid and racism in most black South Africans' minds.  Earlier, Mandela himself had observed a game when the Springboks played the English national rugby team, and black South Africans had cheered the English group.  How Mandela strategized and worked to get the result he hoped for is compelling and could serve as a useful lesson to anyone who wants to learn it, and one leader who has picked up on it, as This Is Football makes clear, is Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda.  The role of soccer in helping to heal Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and the emphasis Kagame put on using soccer as a tool to help that healing is what This is Football's first episode is about.  It's titled "Redemption".

Not that anyone should need it, but the episode provides background information about the genocide and some of the historical conditions that led up to it.  Soccer has long been the country's most popular sport, and before the genocide there were various soccer leagues people played in as well as clubs where people would gather, Hutus and Tutsis, to watch international soccer on television or to listen to it on the radio. For some odd reason, which is explained in the episode, Liverpool in the Premier League, of all the teams in all the world, has for decades been the team most Rwandans favor.

Paul Kagame explains how the Rwandan capital city of Kigali was in total chaos when the military forces he led against the extremist Hutu government took control of the country and ended the genocide.  The country as a whole was devastated and chaotic, and obviously, the enmity between Tutsis, who had been massacred, and Hutus, who feared retribution, was at a severe point.  

In the context of the various other things undertaken to rebuild the country, This is Football shows how Kagame and others stressed soccer as a healer and how clubs and leagues began to reconstitute. These efforts were especially attractive to the young, both girls and boys, people who were children during the genocide period or born after it.  When you're playing soccer, as someone says, you don't really care who you're teammate is, Hutu or Tutsi; you just want to score and win the game.  The episode has lots of interviews with Rwandans, and these are talks that are funny and sad and quite illuminating.  You have people talking of taking the field and playing soccer with other people they know have killed their family members.  

I have to add that Liverpool, after everything Rwanda has gone through, remains very popular in the country, and the final image of three Rwandans making a recent pilgrimage to that city to watch their beloved team play, the three of them entering the stadium and chatting with British fans there, is a great one.

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