Football is War

NEW YORK – The flags are already flying, from Holland to Argentina, from Cameroon to Japan. Soon the drums will be beating, the trumpets blowing. Colors will be unfurled, and battle cries will sound. It’s that time again: the World Cup is upon us.

The late Rinus Michels, also known as “the General,” coach of the Dutch team that narrowly lost to Germany in the 1974 final, famously said, “Football is war.” When the Dutch had their revenge in 1988 and beat Germany to go on to become European champions, more people danced in the streets in Holland than on the day that the real war ended in May 1945.

On one occasion, in 1969, a football match between Honduras and El Salvador actually led to military conflict, known as the Soccer War. Tensions between the two countries were already high. But then fans of the Honduras team were set upon, and even worse, the Honduran national anthem was insulted, and the country’s white and blue flag defiled.

Of course, soccer wars are rare (indeed, I can’t think of another example), but the notion that international sporting competitions inevitably inspire warm fraternity – an idea advanced by Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games – is a romantic fiction. The violence of British football hooligans, for example, reflects a peculiar nostalgia for war. Life in peaceful times can be dull, and British glory seems a long way in the past. Football is an opportunity to experience the thrill of combat, without risking much more than a few broken bones.