While you’re watching Team USA soundly whomp England (hopefully) on day 2 of the World Cup tomorrow, ponder this: could soccer, the obsession of every country in the world other than the slightly backwards and somewhat confused USA, possibly be a bad thing?
Soccer, as it turns out, has a long history of aggravating tensions and igniting conflicts, both internal and international.
For instance, in 1969, soccer started a war. The conflict between El Salvador and Honduras, which has come to be known as the Football War, lasted four days and was the result of tensions between the two countries over immigration and land reform. But these tensions were exacerbated during the qualifying games for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. Honduras won the first game; El Salvador the second. There was rioting around both games, and finally, the night before the third and deciding game was to be played in Mexico City, politics combined with soccer fervor and El Salvador cut diplomatic relations with Honduras. The first attack occurred two and a half weeks later.
And in the Middle East, soccer has become a tool for religious ideologues.
“I’d rather die of hunger than entertain the possibility of coaching Israel,” Egyptian national team coach Hassan Shehat is quoted as saying in response to speculation that he might go train the Israeli team. “How can these Zionists think that I would take on the task of coaching a side that includes murderers of children and pensioners? How could I work to help a team that represents a nation of occupiers?”
Wow. Tell us what you really think.
Even players have politicized the game. Mohamed Aboutrika, a midfielder for Egypt, received a warning from the Confederation of African Football in January for lifting his Egypt jersey after scoring a goal to reveal an undershirt that said “Sympathize with Gaza.”
The conflict between Israel and the Arab world regularly plays out in soccer matches — or, more specifically, in their absence. In 1974, Israel was kicked out of the Asian Football Confederation because the teams of many Arab nations refused to play the Israeli team, as they do not recognize Israel as a country. And in January this year, the head of Iran’s soccer federation mistakenly emailed New Year’s greetings to Israel when the sending out the league’s annual New Years greetings to all the teams in FIFA. Iran is one of the teams that refuses to play against Israel.
In Egypt, Coach Shehat makes religion an issue within the Egyptian team, as well. In selecting team members, he says piety is the main criteria, and he has cut talented players who do not meet his standards as such.
The Boston Globe quoted Shehat as saying: “Without [piety], we will never select any player regardless of his potential. I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God.” In a Muslim nation where the Coptic minority is already being marginalized, soccer is, in effect, helping to tear the country apart internally.
Soccer is also a cause of Egypt’s very volatile relations with Algeria. Last November, Egypt actually pulled its ambassador out of Algeria as a result of violence surrounding the soccer match that determined which of the two teams would go to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. (Algeria won the match). The twenty-year feud between the two teams began in 1989, when, BusinessWeek writes,
Egypt beat Algeria for a World Cup place and an Algerian player gouged out the eye of an Egyptian physician in a hotel lobby.
In spite of all this, Lars Gustafsson, a Swedish politician, nominated soccer for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, on the basis that “Soccer has and will continue to play an important role in the global arena, when it comes to creating understanding between people.”
Needless to say, the sport did not win.
There is a fair bit of controversy surrounding this year’s World Cup, which began today in South Africa.For one thing, the country isup in arms about the fact that Colombian popstar Shakira was selected to sing this year’s official FIFA World Cup song, “Waka Waka.”
On a more serious note, The Daily Beast has reported that, despite hopes that the World Cup will unify South Africa, rumors abound that immediately after the World Cup, foreign immigrants are going to be violently kicked out of the country:
In South Africa’s poorest communities, locals are canvassing the streets, approaching African immigrants with formal letters or verbal warnings: go home now—or face vigilante violence after the World Cup ends on July 11. The notion that the World Cup final will be followed by a war on poor and African foreigners is sweeping the nation.
Would the world be a better place without soccer? Doubtful. Such a place sounds dark, bleak and depressing. But in the next month, as you spend hour after hour drinking beer and yelling at a television screen, it’s worth bearing in mind. The World Cup should be about unity and bringing the world together over a common love for the game.
Eben Novy-Williams contributed to this article.