“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Bill Shankly, the manager who made Liverpool FC the powerhouse you know today, said that many years ago. Decades ago, in fact. I often wonder what his true intent was with this statement. On a surface level it can be an amusing anecdote from a soccer obsessed coach. On further reflection and consideration, however, it can mean much, much more than that. In this series of articles I will be working with organizations, people, and soccer leagues in Africa, to examine how they are moving towards the ideal that soccer can be ‘much, much more.’
The image of soccer that most people see who are outside of the community is the singing, chanting, and occasionally out of line antics of the hardcore supporters. This is an aspect of what soccer is about, but it is also much, much more than that. It is children learning a sport that grows their potential as athletes and as people, with a place on the team and in the world. It is a girl finding confidence in her abilities as an equal the day she scores a goal on a boy in her schoolyard. It is a community coming together around and outside the playgrounds to improve their own neighbourhoods. It is the displaced, homeless, and refugees in our world finding a way to connect to their own selves once more and discover hope for their future. It is a broken nation putting itself back together one national team goal, and one win, at a time. It is a continent putting itself on the National stage it deserves. It is all of these and much, much more.
I believe these are the kinds of thoughts Bill was having when he said soccer was much more than a matter of life and death. Soccer has an ability to bring about social change much the way Nelson Mandela believed sport could when he said; “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” No one would argue Mandela to be a sport obsessive, but he is saying something along the same lines as Bill. Sport is our universal language, with soccer being the common dialect and much, much more.
Dozens of organizations all across North America believe in this ideal enough to use it as a vehicle for social change in Africa. Thousands of people agree with them year in and year out as they volunteer their time to teach children about soccer, and related life lessons. The lessons are of living, living together, and living to our fullest potential for the good of the team. This is what I want to believe Bill was truly talking about. I want to show you, through the eyes of the African people and those with them, how soccer is a sport, a gathering place for communities torn apart, a way that old friends celebrate the good old times, and much, much more.
In Africa there are nations of need, and nations of great need, there is war, and there are great nations building themselves a place on the world stage. Poor, prosperous, or at peace, they have soccer as the life blood pushing through their veins with the beat of their shared pulse. On this trip there will be the beauty of the Beautiful Game and the people who play it, there will be sadness mixed in with the victories and happiness in some of the losses, and I can assure you, there will be much, much more.