Sport, at its best, captures the publics’ imagination, unleashes its passions and can be a force for progressive change.
When Joe Lewis knocked out Max Schmeling millions of Black Americans erupted with vindicated joy!
When the young African American, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals while setting three world records at the 1936 Berlin, “Nazi” Olympics he challenged Hitler’s claims of Aryan supremacy and inspired freedom loving people everywhere.
France’s 1998 World Cup victory undermined the growing influence of the anti-immigrant, xenophobic National Front that had criticized the team for not being white enough. Led by Zinédine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, who scored two goals in the 3-0 championship victory over Brazil, the multiracial squad included several players such as Thierry Henry whose families had immigrated from former French colonies.
Like Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson. Roberto Clemente, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Martina Navratilova, and Muhammad Ali before them, the victorious French team used the spotlight to promote human and civil rights.
Led by Ghanaian-born Marcel Desailly, the entire team appealed to the public to reject the presidential candidacy of the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. They endorsed the re-election of President Jacques Chirac who won in a landslide.
Iraq’s national soccer team stunning 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup last month continues the rich tradition that links competition and political resistance.
It was Iraq’s first championship ever. The victory brought all Iraqis, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, together in raucous celebrations across their war torn country.
The winning goal came on a corner kick by Hawar Mohammed, a Kurd, headed into the net by the team’s captain, Mahmoud, a Sunni Turkoman from Kirkuk. It was an inspirational triumph for a team whose players straddle bitter and violent ethnic divides. But the athletes’ elation was tempered by the reality of the on-going US occupation of their homeland.
Immediately after the game, Mahmoud, the team’s captain and final winning star, called for the United States to withdraw its troops from his nation. “I want America to go out,” he said. “Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn’t invade Iraq and, hopefully, it will be over soon.
Goalkeeper Noor Sabri Abbas, a Shiite, played a central role in the Iraqi team’s progress through the tournament. He posted four consecutive shutouts, including the semi-final victory over South Korea where he blocked two shots in the final shootout after a regulation 0-0 tie, resulting in a 4-3 victory for the Iraqi team. During the tournament, Sabri’s brother-in-law was killed in a bombing. Two other team members also lost relatives during the tournament.
Coach Jorvan Vieira and Mahmoud wore black armbands during the post game news conference to commemorate the dozens of fans killed in Iraq during celebrations following their semifinal victory. “It’s very clear, from our arms, our respect to the people who died when we put Korea out of the competition,” Vieira said. “This victory we offer to the families of those people.”
Mahmoud, captain, star and opponent of the US invasion, said he would not return to Iraq. “I don’t want the Iraqi people to be angry with me,” he said. But “if I go back with the team, anybody could kill me or try to hurt me.” He added, “One of my closest friends, they came to arrest him, and for one year neither me nor his family knew where he is.”
Other incidents in the month-long tournament reflected the terrible conditions in the war-torn country. Mahmoud was detained at the airport in Bangkok, Thailand for 12 hours and nearly missed the opening game. The entire team wore black armbands for the final against Saudi Arabia to honor the memory of the dozens of fans killed by two car bombs during celebrations of the semi-final victory.
Iraq, whose only World Cup appearance was in 1986, dominated the Saudis, three-time Asian Cup champions. Now Iraq joins the United States, Brazil, Italy and host South Africa at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup along with the champions of Europe, Africa and Oceania.