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The unifying power of sport

England and France players stand in a circle ahead of kick-off at Wembley (Credit: Ben Sutherland via Flickr)

By Sam Saunders

With the highly anticipated Six Nations clash between Wales and England scheduled for this weekend in Cardiff, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that, in spite of its inherently partisan nature, sport really does have the power to bring people together in moments of great joy and great sorrow. It’s been on exhibit very recently and it certainly will be again. That said, and as some people will undoubtedly be thinking at the moment, there is also an ugly side to sport; racism, hooliganism, rampant corruption, doping and madcap foreign investment are or have been huge issues in sport. However, I think that we can too often focus on all of the negatives, and ignore what has always been good about these events that are so loved. That’s what I want to look at in this column, by touching on recent events, as well as some more historic examples.

We’ll start with Wales v England, which is always an unmissable occasion, mainly due to the shared history between the two countries and the rugby rivalry that has existed for as long as anyone can remember. The clash has added spice this year because whichever team emerges victorious will be well placed to win the Six Nations Grand Slam, a seriously significant achievement. Despite the nationalist fervour that I’m sure will be on show, and the fact that the entire city will be buzzing, I doubt that we will hear about any fights or crowd trouble during the match. Perhaps it is just the nature of rugby, but it seems that we can all get fired up for the game, enjoy it and then still have a pint together at the end. This was exhibited brilliantly by the pictures from inside the stadium in 2017, with English and Welsh fans mixed in with seemingly no trouble. It’s testament to the fans and the players that such a charged event can be celebrated with little to no trouble from the crowd or supporters outside the stadium, no matter the result.

Away from a specific fixture, tragedy in sport always brings a moment for introspection and and reflection, as well as providing the opportunity for everyone from across a sport to come together at a difficult time. Unfortunately, this season’s Premier League has provided two such moments, with the deaths of Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala and the helicopter crash at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, which claimed the lives of Leicester City’s chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and four others on board. The outpouring of support from the footballing world after the disappearance of the plane carrying Sala and the pilot, David Ibbotson, has been nothing short of outstanding. Vigils were held in the centre of Nantes, where Sala had spent around three and half years, and flowers and tributes were laid outside the Cardiff City Stadium. It was also classy for Arsenal to include Sala in the programme for their game against Cardiff City at the end of January, with a daffodil printed next to his name instead of a shirt number. The Cardiff supporters were also excellent in the three games since Sala’s disappearance and subsequent death, with the match against Bournemouth on 2 February particularly noteworthy for its charged but melancholy atmosphere. The togetherness of the sport was exemplified not just in the actions of fans in Nantes and Cardiff, but by the contributions from across the game to fund private searches for the bodies of both Sala and Ibbotson; a notable donor to both funds was the Paris Saint Germain striker, Kylian Mbappe. The outpouring of emotion around Sala’s death really shows how sport can bring people together and that even in moments of great tragedy, a simple game of football can help everyone express their sadness and attempt to move on.

As previously mentioned, the death of Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha last October was another case of when sport can bring people together. In addition to various tributes in the form of scarves, shirts and flowers being left outside the King Power Stadium in Leicester, the togetherness shown by the players and staff, who all lined up on the pitch at Cardiff during the minute’s silence was exceptional. Again, there were thousands of messages of gratitude on social media from fans and tributes from those around the world of sport, especially because Srivaddhanaprabha’s investment in the club had helped fire Leicester to an unlikely Premier League triumph in 2016. What struck me about this tragedy was that again, there was no hate or vitriol directed here, and sport provided the opportunity for everyone to express their grief, as Cardiff played host to Leicester’s 1-0 win.

There are too many historic examples to mention here, so I’ll select a few that I think are pretty exemplary. Firstly, England’s match against France at Wembley in November 2015 was played in the shadow of the terrorist attacks that had happened at the Stade de France and across Paris several days earlier. Whilst I was of the opinion that the match should never have been played in the first place, the sight of thousands of English and French fans singing La Marseillaise before kick-off was stirring and truly emphasised the unity between the two countries in the face of adversity, despite the historic rivalry both off and on the field. Sticking with France, the whole country was able to unite behind their national football team, known as Les Bleus, during their world cup triumphs of 1998, 2018 and their run to the final of Euro 2016. The 1998 campaign was a victory for the so-called ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ team, which was made up of the sons of both French nationals and those who had come to France from its colonies, which had caused consternation in some sections of French society. Whilst racial tensions still exist in France today, it marked an important first step in showing that this new France could be successful on the world stage.

The Olympics are another prominent example of how sport can bring people together, even if they have sometimes been used for more nefarious goals. We can consider London 2012 as an example of the former, as a nation somewhat disconnected from their Olympian stars basked in the warmth of a British summer and outstanding sporting success, a feat that was repeated four years later at Rio 2016, where Great Britain finished a record 2nd in the medals table. Even the aforementioned examples with less noble intentions, we could argue that the 1980 Olympic Games in the USSR and the 1984 Games in the USA did bring people together, as they were a celebration of communism and capitalism, even though many countries chose to boycott these events.

Overall, I completely agree that modern sport has a lot of problems that need solving in order for it to retain its popularity and entertainment value moving forward, however, there should be a recognition that sport still has many benefits, among which is the ability to bring people together and to demonstrate emotion and feeling.

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