It may appear that our dusty history books have done their part to enlighten us about Mahatma Gandhi’s magnificent figure — the lawyer, the anti-colonial resistance leader, and the political campaigner — all of which add to his reputation as the Father of the Nation.
However, we may need to reconsider our position and comb through the dusty pages of history to unearth truths that will astound us. During his time as a practising lawyer in South Africa, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was also a football fanatic who was instrumental in forming the Transvaal Indian Football Association in 1896, the first ‘structured football association‘ operated by non-whites.
While studying law in London, Mahatma Gandhi became acquainted with the sport and its uniting qualities. The year was 1893, and Mohandas Gandhi was 23 years old when he first set foot on South African land, which would prove to be vital in defining the remainder of his professional path. While on a case for a business named Dada Abdulla & Company in the old British colony, Gandhi took up the desire and the tools to nurture the sense of nationalism in the Rainbow country. Gandhi was obliged to cultivate an uncommon empathy for the impoverished, oppressed, and downtrodden after witnessing the condition of the Indians living there and the blatant injustice meted out by the British occupiers.
Gandhi was engaged in advocating for non-white people in South Africa who were being severely oppressed by British males on their ambition to fulfil the ‘White Man’s Burden’ even before his involvement with the Indian Independence Movement. It was in South Africa that Gandhi developed the passive resistance strategy and began practising Satyagraha. When Gandhiji chose to focus on utilising football as an effective instrument to foster team spirit and provide him with the opportunity to disseminate the word about the Non-Violent Resistance campaign against the British, here is where the function of football comes into play.
Even though there is no evidence that Mahatma Gandhi was a superb football player, the political leader par excellence utilised his foresight to start three football teams in South Africa. Gandhi exploited the allure of football matches to oppose racial injustice in South Africa, forming the ‘Passive Resisters Soccer Club’ with a few predominantly Indian men in the cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban.
Gandhi and his comrades also founded the Transvaal Indian Football Association and the Klip River District Indian Football Association. Soon after, in 1903, the South African Association of Hindu Football was established, ushering in a new era in South African athletic history, particularly in the sphere of ‘organised’ football.
Football, as a cheap sport, has exploded in popularity among the less wealthy, thanks to the team-playing approach, which goes a long way in demonstrating true team spirit. Football matches in South Africa were a gathering place for the less well-off, especially Indians and other Africans, who utilised the chance to yell their lungs out in ferocious support of the game.
It was this group that Gandhi had targeted, and it was this group that had the most problems under the British settlers’ domination. Gandhi was very involved with the Passive Resisters Soccer Club, and he would utilise the games to promote the message about Satyagraha and the importance of civil disobedience against tyrants. There is evidence and stories of Gandhi making passionate speeches to motivate the oppressed, transforming himself into a Messiah figure for them. Under the pretence of football matches, the renowned pacifist leader also distributed brochures to raise people’s political awareness and ask them to join the resistance.
The football matches had another aspect to them, which Gandhi harped on. The matches between the Passive Resisters acted as fundraisers for the families of social activists who were imprisoned. The matches were staged in retaliation for the wrongful imprisonment of their fellow activist colleagues and acquaintances who were campaigning against the intransigent segregationist legislation. During such occasions, Gandhi was a genuine helmsman, and he and his comrades even constructed the football pitch at Phoenix, which is today regarded as a heritage venue.
Christopher’s Contingent, South Africa’s first genuine football squad, owed a debt of gratitude to the great commander for creating the foundations of football in their country. Gandhi’s links to the sport reportedly dwindled once he moved to his Motherland in 1914. Although, for the most part, Gandhi was there with Christopher’s Contingent when they landed in India for a 14-match series. Despite this, his attitudes toward sports and football shifted dramatically as he became increasingly concerned about the plight of his fellow compatriots.
‘Our colonial-born Indians are taken away with this football and cricket frenzy,’ Gandhi furiously wrote, despairing at the lax attitude some Indians exhibited. Under some conditions, these games may be appropriate. But I am confident that they do not have a place for us, who are currently so broken.’ Gandhi exhorted everyone to follow in his footsteps and pick up the tools of Satyagraha after deciding to devote all of his energies to obtaining independence from the British.
Although the great political leader passed away on January 30, 1948, following his assassination by Nathuram Godse, his ideas of Ahimsa and Non-Violence continue to reverberate today, inspiring generations.
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