The choice of South Africa as the host venue of the 2010 World Cup provides a perfect opportunity to renew our efforts to combat discrimination in all its forms.

The Football World Cup kicks off on June 11. This is an opportune occasion to reflect on the fact that sport is meant to foster social cohesion, bring different cultures together in a celebration of healthy competition, and to overcome the diffidence and even contempt that all too often divide countries and communities in the political and social arenas. The movie “Invictus” on how Nelson Mandela used rugby to defuse potential strife and build a common national identity was one such reflection. And the choice of South Africa, a country that renounced the institutionalised racism of Apartheid, as the host venue of the 2010 World Cup provides both a perfect opportunity and a platform to renew our efforts to combat discrimination in all its forms.

As a victim of racism and a sports fan, I urge all who play or simply watch sport to use the World Cup as a catalyst to call for global action against intolerance and racism. These are scourges that affect countless women, men and children around the world and that must be challenged at every turn.

Ability to join millions

Indeed, fear, intolerance and xenophobia can all be combated with diametrically opposed values of fair play and cooperation that are so central to team sports such as football. The World Cup is perhaps the highest expression of football's ability to join millions of people from all regions of the world in a common and joyous pursuit.

Undoubtedly, we all have our favourite team and wish it victorious, but let us not forget that the World Cup allows us to connect with others whose different history, culture and traditions we might otherwise never be exposed to. As a result of these contacts, we are all enriched. Our common passion for football reinforces the bonds of community pride, makes explicit our shared aspiration for excellence, and channels and elevates our instinct of competition.

But let us also be vigilant about racism and other manifestations of intolerance that poison sport — particularly football— that undermine its positive message and that bring it into disrepute. This happens all too often when the supporters of competing teams use intolerant slurs and even violence to vilify and attack their opponents.

Regrettably, even the players themselves have at times been prone to such despicable behaviour. Professional footballers are rightly obliged to uphold the highest standards of sportsmanship, both ethically and under FIFA's code of conduct, which includes provisions on non-discrimination. Yet on occasions, rich clubs and rich national bodies have escaped more severe sanction by paying derisory fines after serious racist incidents during matches.

National football authorities everywhere must back their strong rhetoric with serious and consistent disincentives. Manifestations of racism or intolerance in or around the stadiums during the World Cup should be swiftly addressed and the perpetrators isolated.

The clear message of the World Cup must be that there is no place for racism and intolerance in sport. I welcome the stand taken against racism by FIFA and UEFA — both organisations continue to build programmes which promote tolerance and campaign against racism. FIFA plans to use the four quarter final matches of the World Cup, in particular, to make an unequivocal statement against racism to millions of people around the world. Before those matches, the captains of each team will read a declaration encouraging players, officials and fans around the world to say “no” to any and all forms of racism.

Pathway out of exclusion

The Football World Cup presents a unique opportunity to maximise the potential of this sport to educate ever-expanding constituencies and attract talent irrespective of social status and position in life. For many poor athletes, football has offered a pathway out of seemingly endless exclusion. Their accomplishments have inspired others to follow suit. In every society, successful sports men and women are role models whose behaviour is closely scrutinised and even emulated. Young minds are especially influenced by both positive and negative messages received from those they respect, particularly their sports heroes.

Ultimately, the real winners of this year's World Cup will be those who celebrate and uphold both in words and in deeds its values of fair play, honest competition, respect and tolerance both on and off the field. Let's kick discrimination off the field. Let's tackle exclusion. Let's put racism offside. — Courtesy: U.N. Information Centre, New Delhi

( Navi Pillay is U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. )

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