What Historians Can Learn from the World Cup

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South African fan in Johannesburg during World Cup 2010 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As with the Beijing Olympics, the South African World Cup has shone a spotlight onto its host country, highlighting its diverse history for the world to see.  While South Africa has traditionally been known for apartheid, the World Cup has successfully illuminated all parts of the nation’s history. For many in the world, the World Cup served as the first introduction of not only South Africa’s apartheid past, but also of a nation’s ability to take steps necessary to repair itself from a damage many historians have called “irreparable.”

One needs only to plug “South Africa” and “World Cup” into any search engine in order to find out more about South Africa’s struggle with racism and fledgling democracy. Alongside the report of each goal scored by Tshabalala is a history lesson of how such a thing would not have been possible a short generation ago when South Africa’s team barred blacks from playing. One article even claims that it was soccer that defeated apartheid!

Sports fans are hungry to learn more about the history of their teams, players and major sporting events’ host nations. It is impossible to speak about the history of a player, sport or team without discussing the historical events of the world that shaped them. Fans of the sport will notice how many games in the 2010 World Cup elicited mention of  the violence of the Soweto Uprising, which caused FIFA to bar the South African team from the World Cup for sixteen years. You could compare this historical interest to the way in which announcers and sports journalists discuss the Track & Field events of the Olympics: each year the world is reminded of  Jesse Owens’ record-breaking and politically explosive victories in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. More often than not, sporting events are tied to political ones.

Brazil v North Korea (Wikimedia Commons)

Therefore, both local and international sporting events provide a natural means to engage the public imagination with complex historical issues. Public interest is already piqued by modern sports that have been affected by the legacies of this bloody past. Berkeley’s history department is currently capitalizing on student’s World Cup interest by offering a summer course on apartheid. This is a trend that I would like to see continued. With racial politics being far from over, we need more courses on apartheid, on slavery & the slave trade, on colonization and post-colonialism. It’s our duty to help people make sense of the past so that they can make better decisions for our future, and sporting events could be the hook we need to keep them interested long enough to do so.

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3 Responses to “What Historians Can Learn from the World Cup”

  1. What Historians Can Learn from the World Cup (via History Compass Exchanges) « Brewing History Says:

    [...] As with the Beijing Olympics, the South African World Cup has shone a spotlight onto its host country, highlighting its diverse history for the world to see.  While South Africa has traditionally been known for apartheid, the World Cup has successfully illuminated all parts of the nation’s histo … Read More [...]

  2. The World Cup & Classroom teaching « brewing history Says:

    [...] the potential Angela Sutton cites for using football as a lens to better understand South Africa (and its history), the World Cup [...]

  3. Laura J. Mitchell Says:

    Sean Jacobs has more on the local meanings of a complicated history as it plays out in the world cup: http://theleoafricanus.com/2010/07/08/die-kaap-is-hollands/

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