Sat, Jun 03, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The subtle geopolitics of football

Football is less `war by other means,' and more a passive reflection of the state of play off the field

By Pascal Boniface

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 often employed 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 1930s-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.

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, ad-dressed 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 former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown a few years ago, Brazil's football team acted as an ambassador for the UN's Brazilian-led peacekeeping forces. And, when conflict stops, from Kosovo to Kabul, football is the first sign of a society returning to normal.

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