It was that great statesman and most extraordinary human being Nelson Mandela who said “sport has the power to change the world”.
In a South African context, there can be no doubt about sport’s enormous contribution in changing the political and societal landscape of this country.
From a football perspective, the Federation Professional League (FPL) was at the forefront of this struggle. In a country riven by apartheid, it was established in 1969 as a non-racial, semi-professional football body.
At the time, there was also the white National Football League (NFL) and the black National Professional Soccer League (NPSL).
The FPL played under the auspices of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), whose motto was “no normal sport in an abnormal society”.
Remember this was a dark and difficult period. Everything was geared towards fighting the segregation policies of the architects of apartheid. Sacos and the FPL were totally committed to the isolation of all sport in the country.
If there was no normal, democratic society, then there could be no normal, integrated sport.
So, in 1985 – and this was during the height of some of the bloodiest protests and uprisings in the country – when the black NPSL and the white NFL merged to form the National Soccer League (NSL), the FPL remained true to its principles. It refused to join this charade.
The stance was simple: If the country was still in the brutal grip of apartheid, how could “normal”, integrated football be played?
A few years later, in 1991, when the political pressure, both inside and outside the country, eventually succeeded, a fully unified football body was finally established – and this time, with the country changing, the FPL was ready to throw in its lot.
But, and here is the rub, this extensive, influential contribution of the FPL has, ever since, been airbrushed from history.
They say that “history is written by the winners” – but here it would seem, to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that some winners are “more equal than others”. It is as if the FPL never existed.
It is as if they never played any football. In essence, because of the hegemony of the current political climate of our time, we are assailed by a skewed glimpse of football’s history.
There was a fantastic football culture in the FPL – top-class players, historic grounds and fantastic crowds – and, yet, speak to anybody who played during the FPL era (1969-1990) and they will tell you that football unity did them no favours.
They feel left out, discarded, and their contribution to democracy in South Africa not recognised.
There’s a smattering of high-profile FPL stalwarts still around, like former Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba, Boebie Solomons and even Safa president Danny Jordaan, who cut his administrative teeth in the Federation.
But, always, whatever is done, players from the old FPL are never included.
Organise a legends game against an overseas club, and I don’t have to tell you who is selected. Delve into, or discuss, the history of former leagues and players, and I don’t have to tell you who is asked and invited.
As far as today’s football is concerned, there has never been a body called the FPL. And, as such, because of the status quo, most former FPL footballers and officials have turned their backs on the sport.
So think of all that intellectual property that has been lost to the sport – the experience, the knowledge, the potential coaching nous and the principled administrative vision.
To quote former Santos midfielder Donnie Ronnie, when I interviewed him last year: “The players of the time, in the FPL, made massive sacrifices to fight against the political dispensation of the era. And, if you ask any of us, we would tell you that we would do it all over again, if we had to.
“For us, it was always about principle. And today, a vibrant, proud football association like the FPL is not getting its due.”
This, of course, is a scenario not restricted to sport, as there are many in all walks of life who can tell a similar tale.
The principles they stood for have been hurled on to the scrapheap of a history they apparently have no claim to.
They say “a nation who values its privileges above its principles soon loses both”.
The innuendo is silent but screaming.