The Man of Peace Award does not attract anywhere near the same level of publicity as the Nobel Peace Prize. It was created in 1999 on the initiative of Mikhail Gorbachev as a sort of prize-winners’ prize and is bestowed annually by Nobel Peace Prize laureates at their annual summit. The reason this one is more noteworthy than most is that it involves a person from the unlikely field of football: Roberto Baggio, former Italian international and 1993 Fifa Player of the Year.
To football fans with longish memories, Baggio was the winger whose grace and accuracy put him up there with the world’s best. But he was also a standout player in the rowdy world of international football for his Buddhist beliefs, manifested by a pigtail that earned him the nickname of The Divine Ponytail. Baggio wasn’t just divine in terms of footballing skills, he was among the game’s rare gentlemen too. After he retired, he was nominated Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and he continues to do a considerable amount of charity work in Italy and Argentina where he bought a ranch. The Peace Prize, though, has been awarded for his campaign to free fellow Buddhist and Burma’s long-detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has just been released by Myanmar’s military junta after nearly two decades of house arrest. Obviously, in the myriad complex calculations of geo-politics and -economics, Baggio’s role in Suu Kyi’s release would have been infinitesimal. Nevertheless, it would not be unfair to suggest that he is probably more deserving of this peace award than Barack Obama is of the Big One. Also, where the Dalai Lama has become the go-to fashionable Cause for Western celebrities, Baggio chose to work in the wings away from the glare of publicity to generate awareness for Suu Kyi’s predicament.
Baggio’s award is also noteworthy because the Nobel Prize winners have chosen to honour a sportsman in place of the usual suspects among film stars and performers (George Clooney and Bono have been past winners). So the award should be celebrated because it sends an important message to the sports industry in general and the rambunctious world of global football in particular. Even today, in these politically correct times, the sports business worldwide is generally known for a unique amorality that mainstream Big Business is jettisoning. Where most businessmen and industrialists seek to leaven their wealth by investing in social causes — Bill Gates’ Foundation being a notable example — the world of sports continues to represent the raw, unabashed face of capitalism where affluence is celebrated for its own sake. Nothing illustrates this better than football, the world’s most popular game, with practitioners who can become billionaires before they’re 25 years old.
To be sure, most large teams do make substantial donations to charitable causes — Spain’s highly successful team Barcelona sets a unique example in sponsoring Unicef and the team jersey bears the logo. There are also many footballers — and some of them outstandingly badly behaved on the pitch — who take time and large-ish chunks out of the thousands they earn in weekly wages for some truly commendable work (most African footballers are notable for this). In cricket, Australia’s Steve Waugh has done some outstanding work both during and after his playing days, as does Britain’s Mike Brearley. But they are the exceptions who get noticed in a business that is getting increasingly known for over-the-top spending and bad, if not criminal, behaviour. Sportsmen by virtue of their constant and wide public exposure tend to be more influential role models for youngsters than most businessmen. Baggio is still a glamorous hero to young football fans. His award tells the world that caring behaviour is not just for the wimps.