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Leading article: The inspiring example of D'Oliveira

You may be uninterested in cricket, football or indeed any sport, but still find meaning in the stories of two men in the news last week. Basil D'Oliveira, who died yesterday, may not really have knocked over the first domino that brought down apartheid, but he played an early and important part in that drama. Sepp Blatter, the head of world football, spent much of last week trying to back away from his suggestion that racist insults on the pitch were just one of those things, to be forgotten with a brisk post-match handshake.

They both feature, in more and in less elevated roles respectively, in the story of progress against racial discrimination.

The decision by the English cricketing authorities in 1968 not to select D'Oliveira for the team to tour South Africa, seemingly because the South African government would object to the inclusion of a "coloured" player, still seems extraordinary. This was, by general consent, part collusion and part cowardice. But it was, paradoxically, a turning point that could be seen as the beginning of the end for the whites-only rule in South Africa.

That was the moment that exposed the nature of the South African regime to the world. That was when the isolation of apartheid became the pre-eminent liberal cause for a generation, for whom boycotting Cape oranges and Barclays bank (which maintained a South African subsidiary) were, for so long, second nature. D'Oliveira's non-selection led to a ban on sporting contact with South Africa that lasted until Nelson Mandela's release in 1990.

It was the economics of sanctions that brought down F W de Klerk's government, but it was the cultural change of the sporting boycott that made it possible.

Through it all, D'Oliveira was modest and dignified. To 21st-century eyes, his refusal to engage in politics might seem a little compromised, but at the time he was just what the National Party in South Africa most feared: someone whose unjust treatment would rally world opinion against them.

Thus sport became an engine of social and political change, and so it continues to be, albeit in a lower register, in the fight against attitudes that still oppress non-white people, even if they are not codified in the constitution of a nation. Football has played an erratic but broadly progressive part in this struggle in Britain; less so in other parts of Europe and the world. But even in Britain, only two of the 92 professional clubs have black managers. Of the 20 Premier League teams, none does.

Contrast this with the National Football League in the US, all white at the end of the Second World War, and where, by the Eighties, black quarterbacks were still rare and there were no black coaches. Today, eight of the 32 franchises have African American quarterbacks and seven have black coaches. Whether this latter figure is the product of the "Rooney Rule" of 2003, requiring a black candidate on the shortlist for every coaching job, is disputed, but there is little doubt now of the seriousness of the NFL's purpose.

Hence the importance of Mr Blatter's failure of leadership last week. Mr Blatter is already unpopular enough in this country, partly because of his influence in preventing us from hosting the World Cup and, conversely, his part in granting the right to host the 2022 competition to Qatar. But he has also, and more justifiably, been criticised for running Fifa as a personal fiefdom – our report today that a company linked to a member of his family has secured some of the best tickets for the 2018 World Cup will hardly help his standing.

Almost the only hopeful thing about Mr Blatter's apparently casual attitude towards racism in football was the response of the Fifa public relations machine, which forced him to apologise, and of other football leaders, including David Beckham, Sol Campbell and Harry Redknapp, who condemned him. On the same principle, it may look like a gimmick that John Terry and Luis Suarez, both accused of racial abuse on the pitch, will wear "Kick It Out" anti-racism T-shirts at Stamford Bridge today, but it is important that such a gesture is felt necessary.

Let us hope, then, that what may appear at first sight to be setbacks in the struggle against racism become the occasion, as the D'Oliveira affair did in 1968, for rallying progressive forces to take forward the cause of racial equality. We should commemorate the life of D'Oliveira by recommitting ourselves to this goal.