Against Japan, with his team losing by one goal to nil, Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba took the field to talismanic effect. Scarcely had the two-time African Footballer of the Year taken the fray than his teammates had scored two goals within four minutes, and following the game he was credited with inspiring them to victory.
Drogba’s leadership qualities have long been visible far beyond the football pitch; most notably in October 2005, when he called for rival political factions in his homeland to lay down their arms. While it is not entirely accurate that his intervention prevented further conflict – the fighting was already lessening in intensity prior to his famous televised speech – his willingness to take the role of athlete-as-activist was reminiscent of great sportsmen-statesmen such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
Drogba’s international team-mate, the Manchester City midfielder Yaya Touré, has also distinguished himself in recent months, making a series of uncompromising statements on the failure of football’s authorities to deal satisfactorily with racism within the game. To quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, Touré realises that "with great power comes great responsibility." Yet while it might seem refreshing that players such as Touré see themselves as ambassadors, their stances have not always met with universal acclaim. On occasion, it is their own peers who have been most scathing.
In 2006, at a time of particularly racist right-wing demagoguery in France, Lilian Thuram offered to buy 80 immigrants tickets to watch him and the national team play against Italy in Paris. However, this did not save him from the famously stinging tongue of his fellow countryman Patrice Evra, who told Le Figaro in 2010 that "walking around with books on slavery in glasses and a hat does not make you Malcolm X."
Brutal as Evra’s words were, they contained an essential truth: that the business of campaigning effectively for social change is an extremely difficult one, for which footballers are frequently underqualified. George Weah, the only man to win all three titles of FIFA World Footballer of the Year, European Footballer of the Year and African Footballer of the Year, ran for president of Liberia in 2005. Had he won, he would have become his country’s first post-war leader: however, given his heavy reliance on his popularity rather than any political experience, it is probably just as well as that he didn’t.
Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko, like George Weah a brilliant center-forward who played with distinction for AC Milan and his country, fared worse in politics than the Liberian. In 2012, he retired from the game and announced his candidacy for the Ukraine – Forward! party, yet his party won less than 2% of the national vote, and ended up without parliamentary representation. Perhaps chastened by this experience, he then stated his plans to become a professional golfer, a field where he has found the going far tougher than he once did on the football pitch.
The footballer who combined the roles of athlete and activist to best effect was probably Sócrates, the elegant midfielder who represented Corinthians and Brazil. Socrates was at the helm of the Democracia Corinthiana (Corinthians’ Democracy) movement, whose aim was to challenge the repressive nature of the way in which Brazil had been governed during decades of military dictatorship. Sócrates’ influence was such that he even managed to have a slogan, Dia 15 Vote, printed on the back of his team’s shirts, which encouraged Corinthians supporters to vote in the country’s first multiparty state elections since the military coup of 1964.
This World Cup, which is taking place against a backdrop of uncommon Brazilian dissent, is one in whose atmosphere Sócrates would have thrived; his social commentary and passion for direct action would doubtless have been a great asset to those on the street, and of great interest to those listening or watching at home. It may be heartening, then, for supporters of his work to see that a new generation of Brazilian footballers are assuming a mantle of leadership; men such as Gilberto Silva, a World Cup winner in 2002, whose Bom Senso (Common Sense) movement was established last year to bring about reform in domestic football. Meanwhile, Romário, a World Cup winner in 1994, is now a congressman in Rio, a platform that he has frequently used to denounce the corruption and waste that he perceives around this year’s edition of the tournament.
It is unsurprising that the footballers who are most vocal about their desires for progressive social change are those from countries where inequality is particularly profound. In those jurisdictions, where civil society has been weakened over time by repressive state institutions, the citizens put their hopes more than most in prominent figures outside the traditional political class. It is encouraging, then, that this World Cup has seen current and former players using their visibility with notable focus and sophistication: a diligence of which their predecessors, in both football and beyond, might well be proud.