Paul's Column: Football or Mandela?

26 September 2017

If I remember correctly it was cold and wet and we were losing 3 – nil. It can be lonely being a goalkeeper, and as I hopped from foot to foot in a vain attempt to keep warm, awaiting the next attacking onslaught while trying to avoid the large puddle in the goalmouth, I pondered the dilemma, football or Mandela? During the preceding year, 1984, my valiant although not altogether successful efforts to keep goal for Clapham House, one of the halls of residence at Leeds University, had been untroubled by such moral predicaments but for no longer.

The challenge to my equilibrium came courtesy of a short conversation with one Deborah Joffe. Deb was the outgoing secretary of the University’s Anti-Apartheid Society, a position she was eminently qualified to hold because her father, Joel Joffe, had defended Mandela at the Rivonnia Trial and had been described by the future President of South Africa as “the general behind the scenes in our defence”.

Joel Joffe died in June of this year at the age of 85. As well as helping Mandela escape the death penalty he was a successful businessman who served on the board of Oxfam and in later life he was an active member of the House of Lords. My attendance at the weekly Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) meetings was sporadic due to a timetabling clash with the inter-house football matches. Only when the weather was bad and the pitches waterlogged, resulting in the fixtures being postponed, did I turn up to AAM meetings and it was at one such meeting I had heard Joel Joffe speak.

I’m sure I wasn’t Deb’s first choice to replace her as secretary but she was kind enough to decline to tell me how many others had turned down the role before she asked me. But ask me she did which in turn led to me uttering the sentence that was to prove to be my Damascus Road moment, “I’m sorry Deb but I can’t be the Secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Society because I play football on a Wednesday”.

Even 33 years later looking back at this utterance has me wincing with my toes curling. Why the doubt? Why the hesitation? Yet at the time it was a genuine dilemma: football or Mandela? The memory of this impasse came flooding back recently when I was asked by my Belgian fellow-socialist Marc Tarabella MEP if I would play for a team from the Parliament that he was assembling to challenge his local village team in his constituency close to the border with Luxembourg.

Some eight years after hanging up my boots I was back between the sticks as part of the most eclectic team I’ve played for which included a Polish former Olympic handball player now an MEP and a ‘ringer’ from the Belgian second division - and an age range from 18 to 58.

That I ended up an MEP in the final years of UK membership of the European Union is due to a mixture of reasons but if I had to choose the incident that had the greatest effect on me it would be the response I received from Deb Joffe that day. When I declined her suggestion that I take over the reigns as Secretary of the university’s AAM due to my footballing commitments, she said: “Oh well, if that’s your priority!” Ouch! Even after 33 years it carries a formidable sting.

Football or Mandela? Admittedly it’s rather an apples and oranges quandary. But it was none the less real for all that as I couldn’t be in two places on a Wednesday afternoon, so I had to make a decision. As Robert Frost put it in his poem The Road not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Looking back I’m in no doubt that Deb and her father influenced me, but one thing that still haunts me: would my decision have been different if the sun had been shining, we’d been winning 3-0 and my team-mates were congratulating me on that amazing penalty save I’d just made?



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