Jim Murphy: How Billy Bremner helped inspire Mandela

The Billy Bremner statue at Elland Road
The Billy Bremner statue at Elland Road
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THE World Cup is the best time to be a football fan. Three games a day, all the best players, and even though there’s less expectation about England this time round, I still feel the same excitement as I did when I was a child. But football hasn’t always been the all-conquering global game.

In fact, football almost died. But a single match helped rescue the sport, and with one unexpected victory, it finally broke free from its ghettos in the nation’s public schools.

The 1883 FA Cup Final might have faded from memory today, but it’s one of the most significant games ever played – one that help change the world.

But what is the most important football match ever played? That debate has raged for decades. It’s an often heated conversation that proves the importance of football. We all know that sport’s impact on the world is as great as that of any government. And no sport ever played has been more influential than football. From the moment it was codified and taken out of Britain’s public schools, it has been a constant companion of change across the globe.

The industrial revolution coincided with a transformation in football’s appeal. As the 20th century dawned, football became the nation’s most successful export.

Football quickly became more than just a pastime: it has bolstered and deposed tyrants; started and stopped wars.

It has been an incubator of racism at home and helped bring down a racist regime abroad. It has assisted in building nations, influencing elections, shaping cities and inspiring resistance. Its impact is as dynamic, contradictory and compelling as the game itself.

Leeds – or rather two Leeds players – feature at the heart of this story, and both with a link to apartheid South Africa. When the ANC leadership were locked up on Robben Island by the racist apartheid regime, a Leeds hero would inspire them in a way he could never have imagined.

Over the years of incarceration for Nelson Mandela and the other political prisoners of the racist South African government, it was the formation of a football league that kept many of them going.

Robben Island’s Makana Football League has been a secret to most football fans. It deserves to be celebrated; it helped bring down apartheid, shape a country and change African football forever. And at the centre of it was a love for the English game.

The prisoners were hungry for every detail of the old First Division, but on a pedestal they placed one player above all others: The man who Mandela’s fellow Rivonia-accused Ahmed Kathrada thought of as “a radical who rejected authority”.

Their footballing superhero helped inspire the most important football games in the history of Africa.

He was the midfielder still celebrated today by many Leeds fans as their greatest ever player; the tough tackling, red-headed Billy Bremner.

Coming the other way was Albert Johanneson. He had fled 1960s apartheid South Africa and has a proud place in the journey talented black players like him were forced to endure in the battle against racism – he made history as the first ever black player in an FA Cup final, playing for Leeds against Liverpool in 1965.

The difficult part of writing a book on the games that changed the world wasn’t finding 10 crucial games; the problem was cutting the list down to just 10. Many of the people I spoke to about the book thought about it for a few seconds before asking “Are you going to include that game between...?” More often than not, their candidate for inclusion on the shortlist was a match involving their team.

I’ve opted for a mix of British and international games, including Sir Alex Ferguson’s first European final. I looked at how football started a war, helped post-war Germany believe again and when the national sport finally stood up to the racism devouring it from within, and the games which sealed some of the sports’ fiercest rivalries including Celtic and Rangers as well as Barcelona and Madrid.

When I first put pen to paper, I had assumed that the most famous football story of them all, the 1914 First World War Christmas truce, would be one of the 10. But it’s really ‘The One that didn’t’. Because by the time those few hours of peace ended, a war that was meant to be over by Christmas had simply paused for a single day. Eight million more were still to lose their lives.

These footballing warriors counted amongst their number supporters from every corner of our land and players from most of football clubs in the leagues. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told and respected.

In this book, I have written about events in history through the experiences of just 11 matches. But football’s story isn’t yet complete – far from it. This is the first generation where football is global and digital.

Every minute of everyday somewhere in the world a child is kicking a ball or being introduced to the beautiful game for the very first time. For many, as they travel through life football will become a constant companion. It will delight, disappoint and inspire. And, in turn, they will sustain a sport that can help to change the world all over again.

• Jim Murphy is the Shadow International Development Secretary and his book The 10 Football Matches That Changed The World ... and the One That Didn’t is published by Biteback, price £16.99.