Blog: Nelson Mandela, you are everyone’s hero. Goodbye and thank you17 December 2013

BlogbyHowardHolmes

‘He was my hero’. These words could have been said by a million people to describe how they feel about the passing of Nelson Mandela; the person I heard saying this was Pele. This got me thinking about the legacy that campaigns against discrimination in sport owe to Mandela.

To a youth worker in the north of England, the 1980s were, on the face of it, a depressing decade dominated by a right wing Tory government waging war on young people and the wider working class. South Yorkshire was the main battleground for the conflict between Mrs Thatcher and the National Union of Mineworkers – an era where greed was good, where there was ‘no such thing as society’ and mass youth unemployment was used as a deliberate economic correcting mechanism.

Football was played behind fences in crumbling stadiums, many of them death traps, and racism against the slowly growing number of black footballers and the new ethnic minority communities surrounding the stadiums was the norm. The clubs and football authorities wrung and then washed their hands as ‘Shoot the Nigger’ chants rolled like waves down the terraces.

To the English FA and the clubs, racism, like hooliganism, was society’s problem, and they were powerless to intervene. The recent protestations of some countries across Europe following crowd racism could have been scripted thirty years ago in the UK.

But the 1980s was also a very political decade across Europe: in Britain the Iron Lady’s confrontational approach – if you disagreed with her you were the enemy within – bred a generation of activists and organised resistance. For many, the greatest symbol of what was wrong in the world was taking place in South Africa, and in particular we felt ashamed of the Thatcher government’s support for the apartheid regime and imprisonment of their political opponents. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was a generation’s rallying call.

I believe it was this building of resistance that led directly to the earliest campaigns against racism in football. I sent away for some St Pauli against Nazi stickers and plastered them all over the youth centre in Sheffield, then read in ‘When Saturday Comes’ magazine about some Leeds United fans leafleting against the far-right National Front who had been openly selling their newspapers outside the Elland Road ground.

What struck me was the support that the Leeds leafleteers received from other Leeds fans, who wrote to the ‘Marching All Together’ fanzine expressing their pleasure that, at last, someone was acting against the NF’s attempts to stir up racial hatred.

At my club, Sheffield United, we began to shout down the racist abusers – who were normally quite shocked that anyone should object, but then generally decided to keep quiet. The real turning point was when we signed Brian Deane, a black man from Leeds, who went on to 94 goals for the Blades including the first ever goal in the Premier League. He was our icon, and you don’t racially abuse your icons.

Nelson Mandela had been out of prison for three years by the time the Lets Kick Racism Out of Football campaign was formed in the UK in 1993. I remember thinking at the time if apartheid could be ended and Mandela was free then surely anything was possible. The very existence of the national campaign gave youth workers and Sheffield United fans the confidence to start the Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) initiative in 1995.

As many have said, Mandela clearly understood the power of sport to unite. On a visit to Leeds in 1991, Mandela said of Leeds United and South African captain, Lucas Radebe, who was stood next to him, “This is my hero”.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, you were – still are – everyone’s hero. Goodbye and thank you.

Howard Holmes is a youth worker and the founder of the FURD project. He is the current Chair of the Fare Board.