Legendary German football coach, Sepp Herberger, famously expressed his philosophies on the beautiful game with the pithiness of a Zen philosopher – “the ball is round”, “Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel” (“after the game is before the game”) etc.
And maybe it’s football’s essential simplicity that goes a long way to explaining its global popularity. In fact, FIFA publishes (men’s) rankings for 209 affiliated nations (from reigning world and European champs Spain to the Turks and Caicos Islands) – which is more than the UN’s 193 members.
This cross-border appeal means international competitions between regional neighbours, such as the European Championships currently being played in Poland and Ukraine, or the four-yearly festival that is the World Cup, provide a unifying focal point for legions of fans that bridges cultural divides and transcends politics.
Some commentators, such as Franklin Foer, have even argued that soccer (he’s American) is the connective tissue of globalisation; the common thread that ‘explains the world’ and links disparate phenomena like anti-Semitism, poverty and radical Islam. He notes the rise of globalised mega-brands such as Manchester United and Real Madrid, whose marketing tentacles reach deep into third world economies (on both the manufacturing and consumer sides) and the uncanny fluidity of movement which sees sub-Saharan African players representing post-communist Eastern European club teams. Foer may be shooting from outside the box with his claims that football accounts for an ever-shrinking planet but he makes a strong case for it being: “…a perfect window into the crosscurrents of today’s world”.
If serious sport, in George Orwell’s words, is “war minus the shooting”, what does that say about the role of sport in international relations? Plenty. Take these examples:
- The Olympic movement was revived with the intention of promoting international peace;
- (closer to home) diplomatic incidents have nearly resulted from controversy in cricket;
- ‘Cold War’ bragging rights were hotly contested on both court and ice by the US and the USSR during the 1970s and 1980s; and
- apartheid South Africa became a pariah of the international sporting community and a lightning rod for racially-charged politics during its period of isolation.
Football, given its global market share, has a particularly politicised history: “Soccer can affect lives on a national and international scale, inspiring revolutions and causing wars as well as having the capability to create peace and lift entire nations”. Honduras and El Salvador fought a four-day ‘Football War’ in 1969 after tensions from a World Cup qualifying match boiled over. In contrast, the presence of Brazilian footballer Pelé stopped a Nigerian civil war when he played an exhibition match in the country. Dictators from Franco and Mussolini to the Argentinian junta and Gaddafi have exploited the tribalism inherent in the game by juggling the ‘political football’.
The vagaries of the fixture list have also thrown up explosive IR pairings like when East and West Germany squared off in the 1974 World Cup; a post-Falklands match-up saw Argentina defeat England in 1986; the ‘Great Satan’, the US, and Iran played each other in France 1998 and the two Koreas acrimoniously battled through World Cup qualifiers in 2008.
And the current Euros feature Russia against two former communist satellite states: the Czech Republic and Poland, and Germany versus the Netherlands – ‘der Klassiker’ once carried WW2 overtones.
Football’s potential to lift a nation’s spirits was memorably realised when a united France (with its ethnically diverse tricolour of ‘black-white-brown’) won the World Cup in 1998, led by their midfield virtuoso, Zinedine Zidane (a son of Algerian Berbers). Extending Foer’s globalisation thesis, the favourites for this year’s European competition, Germany, are spearheaded by the Koran-reciting Mesut Özil – a descendent of Turkish gastarbeiter who migrated to Germany to help in the post-war economic rebuild of the defeated nation. Meanwhile fiscally beleaguered Greece, Spain and Italy and crisis-stricken co-host Ukraine (former PM Yulia Tymoshenko is controversially incarcerated) all hope that international sporting success can divert attention from domestic strife.
What do others think? Is modern sport a secular global religion, a case of 21st century ‘bread and circuses’, a substitute for war, a waste of time or all of the above?