The Geopolitics of Football

In football, defeat is never definitive, but it is always passionate. For football lovers, FIFA (the governing body of international football) should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize long ago. For others, exasperated by football and the emotions it stirs up, the sport is no longer a game, but a type of war that stokes the basest sort of nationalist emotions.

Is there a relationship between football (and sports in general) and a spirit of nationalism and militarism? During the Middle Ages, sports were regularly forbidden in England because they came at the expense of military training. After France’s defeat by Bismarck’s Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (who re-launched the Olympic Games a few decades later) recommended a renewed national emphasis on sport, which by this point was seen as a form of military preparation.

In a football match, the rituals – the flag waving, the national anthems, the collective chants –and the language that is employed (the match starts with a “breakout of hostilities,” one “bombs” the goal, blows up the defense, launches “missile”) reinforce the perception of war by other means. And, in fact, real war has actually broken out over football. In 1969, Honduras and Salvador clashed after a qualification game for the World Cup.

Football matches can, it seems, revive national rivalries and conjure the ghosts of past wars. During the 2004 Asia Nations Cup final, which pitted China against Japan, Chinese supporters wore 1930’s-style Japanese military uniforms to express their hostility to the Japanese team. Other Chinese fans brandished placards with the number “300,000” written on it, a reference to the number of Chinese murdered by the Japanese army in 1937.

But can one really say that football is responsible for the currently bad diplomatic relations between China and Japan? Of course not. Hostility on the football pitch merely reflects the existing tense relations between the two countries, which carry the weight of a painful history.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the dramatic semi-final between France and Germany in Seville in 1982 produced no political ripples, either for diplomatic relations between the two countries or for relations between the two peoples. Antagonism was confined to the stadium, and ended when the match did.

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What football really provides is a residual area of confrontation that allows for the controlled expression of animosity, leaving the most important areas of interaction between countries unaffected. France and Germany will soon have a common army – they already have a common currency – yet the survival of national teams channels, within a strictly limited framework, lingering rivalry between the two countries.

Football can also be the occasion of positive gestures. The joint organization of the 2002 World Cup by Japan and South Korea helped accelerate bilateral reconciliation. The performance of the South Korean players was even applauded in North Korea. Sport, indeed, seems to be the best barometer of relations between the divided Korean people.

Moreover, football, more than long speeches or international resolutions, can help induce progress towards peaceful solutions for military conflicts. After their qualification for this year’s World Cup, the Ivory Coast’s national team, including players from the north and south, addressed all of their fellow citizens, asking the warring factions to lay down their weapons and to put an end to the conflict that has shattered their country. After Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown a few years ago, Brazil’s football team acted as an ambassador for the United Nations’ Brazilian-led peacekeeping forces. And, when conflict stops, from Kosovo to Kabul, football is the first sign of a society returning to normal.

The former president of the FIFA, Joao Havelange, often dreamed of a football match between Israelis and Palestinians: the American vice-president Al Gore regarded such a match as a means to help Washington solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps one day it will take place. Certainly the Iran-United States football game in 1998 offered a moment of fraternization between the two teams. Another Iran-US match might be helpful at this difficult time.

It is because football allows for symbolically limited confrontations, with no major political risks, that it is useful. Its impact on national and international public opinion is broad, but not deep. As the sociologist Norbert Elias put it: “The spectators of a football match can enjoy the mythical excitement of battles taking place in the stadium, and they know that neither the players nor they will suffer any harm.”

As in real life, fans can be torn between their hopes for victory and their fear of defeat. But in football, the elimination of an adversary is always temporary. A return match is always possible. As a Frenchman, I cannot wait for the next World Cup match between France and Germany. But I want France to avenge its defeat at the last World Cup in Seville, not its defeat at Verdun.