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.