By James Parker
United Kingdom Catholic Executive Coordinator for the 2012 Olympic Games
I have just returned from an exciting eight days in South Africa, 2010’s home to the FIFA Soccer World Cup. The eyes of much of the world are glued to TV screens as they watch professional soccer night in and night out with some team or other failing to qualify with each game, and the hopes of another sporting nation being extinguished one after the other.
I was there to watch football but to also see what the Church was up to at grass roots. I suddenly came to realize that there are some equally important football matches that barely ever come to light being played in the shadow of the televised games. Initiated by two organisations, the Damietta Peace Initiative and Caritas, with sponsorship from the South African Bishops Conference, the Peace Cup is an eight-week long football tournament taking place in the townships of Atteridgeville, on the West side of Pretoria.
Sixteen teams from fifteen different countries are competing, made up of local national and non-national South Africans along with visiting football fans who want to play in a challenging game. There is no outright winner and yet everyone participates to teach and learn from each other. A number of people from the wealthy areas of Pretoria are also taking part, many of whom have never visited the townships before.
Antoine Soubrier, the tournament organizer, sees that divisions and tensions between groupings in this country can be diffused by sport. “Since we started this Peace Cup a few weeks ago,” says Soubrier, “many of the locals, who are the poorest of the poor, are saying how proud they are of this initiative as they have heard about the FIFA World Cup but have absolutely no way of engaging with it. These people live with no running water, no sanitation and no electricity. There are no televisions for several miles, and so, along with having no money, these people are totally excluded and benefit nothing from the glitz of what is happening, even though many matches are taking place at a stadium ten miles away in Pretoria.
Fr Bertrand Cherrier of Toulouse, travelling around South Africa with a group of socially excluded French teenagers, sees the benefits of bringing such young men to compete in a tournament of this kind. “Not only are the local people here truly delighted to meet these young men, but they too get to see how significantly more difficult life can be for other people. Here they have something worthy to share which others are appreciative of. Even though the team is made up of made up of Christians, Muslims and those from no particular faith group, there is a growing sense of understanding for, and unity with, one another. Sport achieves this in a way few other things can.”
“Caritas are seeking to get people thinking positively about other people. Xenophobia is rife in South Africa where South African nationals are happy to welcome the rest of the world but not their fellow Africans. Caritas’s work is about teaching people to be proud of being African and getting them to realise that “I am Africa”.”
My attendance in South Africa was as the UK’s Catholic Executive Coordinator for the 2012 Games, but what I saw in Atteridgeville as I witnessed a number of the Peace Cup matches will form my lasting impression. The spirit of friendship and genuine respect was equally as tangible there among the township and visitor games as it was where the international games are presently taking place. It is clear that football, and sport in general, is a most powerful mechanism that can be used by the Church, and those of other and no faiths, to break down prejudicial boundaries and bring about peace. Christ is profoundly present in sport in a way that He cannot be met in other disciplines of life. Those of us who profess to believe in Him and love Him must do all we can to see His kingdom built through every channel of sport open to us.