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Sport and Cultural Diplomacy : Is there a FIFA World Cup legacy in Africa?

test-blu-ray-invictus-9By Margaux Narbey, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. 

Sport –  An effective tool for Cultural Diplomacy? 

 “Football, as well as rugby, cricket and any other team sport, has the power to heal the wounded.” (1993 Nobel  Peace Prize winner and Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela).

It is not a novel recognition that sports can be used as a useful tool for Cultural Diplomacy. The significant involvement of the United Nations in the organization and promotion of the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa stands as clear evidence of this phenomenon.

There has been a general acknowledgement that “Sport builds bridges between people. It brings them together on common and neutral ground. Sport is a means to foster tolerance, respect and peace, and to facilitate communication and dialogue among people.”

Mr. Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser on Sport for Development of Peace, UN, has given two examples – “When the Iraqi football team, consisting of Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as Kurds, won the Asian Cup last year, the divided country found itself temporarily united behind the team. Similarly, in the Ivory Coast, the divisions caused by the conflict between north and south are forgotten, when the Elephants, the all-Ivorian national team, play. Football stars can act as ambassadors for reunification and peace ».  (Mr Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser on Sport for Development of Peace, UN).

The 2010 FIFA World Cup was the first to be hosted on African soil, bringing with it great expectations for social change. In October 2009, the General Assembly of the UN adopted the 64/5 resolution, recognizing the potential of the event for development and peace. Secretary Ban Ki Moon voiced expectations that the event give birth to a number of grassroots projects, mobilizing the power of sport to provide hope and assistance to those in need. It was seen as a clear opportunity for the UN to support existing projects that address the Millenium Development Goals, such as environmental sustainability, child protection, racism, and education.

“By hosting the World Cup, South Africa is given a great opportunity to use this mega-sporting event to raise awareness on social themes, to make young people listen, and to transform the enthusiasm of the people into positive dynamics, such as pride, self-confidence, hope, nation-building, ownership, diversity, solidarity, tolerance, and development .” (Mr Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser on Sport for Development of Peace, UN).

Thus, hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup was seen as essential not only for South Africa but for the continent as a whole; “My hope is that the unifying and nation-building factor that was at play in South Africa when the country hosted and won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 will repeat itself, but on a continental scale this time.” (Mr Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser on Sport for Development of Peace, UN).

Indeed, South Africa is familiar with hosting some of these mega-sport events. We all remember how, in 1995, the South African Sprinboks won the Rugby World Cup at home, fostering a huge sense of unity across a recently “reunified” South Africa. A very interesting article in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, was entitled “How Nelson Mandela won the rugby World Cup”. The Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus, depicts the insistence of Mandela on keeping the Afrikaner rugby team alive as a tool for reconciliation and shows the temporary unification of an entire country behind its rugby team.

The 2010 Fifa World Cup: A Magic Cinderella ?

Nearly three years after the end of the event, the big questions today are: Where is Africa heading? What is the legacy of this event? Were some expectations met? Was the investment worth the shot?

Among the most pessimistic of us, there is a general sense that the World Cup has just come and gone, requiring huge investments, leaving behind abandoned infrastructures and a continent perforated by continuous internal conflicts over the years. And indeed, there is still much to learn from this event. Africans are among the most realistic about it.

We must recall first and foremost that sport is neither good nor bad. And sport cannot achieve Millenium Development Goals on its own. The UN has acknowledged sport as a viable and practical tool to assist in the achievement of many goals when part of a broad and holistic approach. These mega sport events have the potential to boost social, economic and environmental development. They can be positively used as platforms for outreach advocacy and fundraising activities.

On a more optimistic note, many grassroots projects across numerous African countries have already largely benefited from the momentum created by the Football World Cup. However small, these are progressive steps that none of us should forget.

Here is a brief example:

 Football for Hope movement: A Pan-African project

 Football for Hope is a movement is a social profit organization that links relevant actors in the field of development through football.

 Herekoura, literally translated, means “new happiness” in Bambara, the principal language of Mali, and this is how the locals felt about the recent opening of the Football for Hope center in Baguineda – the fourth of 20 such centres being built across Africa as a legacy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.

This is the third centre to be opened outside South Africa. The first center was opened in the Khayelitsha township in Cape Town and the second one was opened in Nairobi, Kenya. The program aims at building 20 centers around Africa to help address some of the challenges faced by the continent, including education and public health. Four more centers have been established in Rwanda, Ghana, Lesotho and Mokopane in South Africa.

Many other similar  projects have been built across Africa after the World Cup. So yes, the World Cup has come and gone and the situation in Africa has remained pretty much the same. And it is true that there is still much to learn from the organization of such events in terms of legacy. But this is a start. A start to build something new, an opportunity to make small steps. Sport does not trigger change on its own but people are sensing, even if temporarily, some kind of pride and self-confidence in this event. At the end of the day, it did not matter who won and who lost. In 2010, it was the first time that an African country hosted a FIFA World Cup and certainly not the last.

Mandela said, “I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine theirs efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses.” 

Thus, to those who wonder what the 2010 FIFA World Cup left behind, one shall answer that it has been like Cinderella, leaving the continent with a similar magic legacy :  “It is the shining vision of the brilliant and multifaceted nations they can and will become”. (Nelson Mandela)

Image source here

Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy


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We are the Blogsphere Team of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. We are the interactive part of the web resources of ICD. We spread culture and mutual understanding among cultures through blogs.


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