Proxy wars on the soc­cer pitch

National Post (Latest Edition) - - IDEAS - Maria D. Mitchell The Wash­ing­ton Post

Af­ter years of wait­ing and an­tic­i­pa­tion, this week’s ar­rival of the World Cup is like Christ­mas morn­ing for soc­cer fans. The world’s most-watched sport­ing event, the World Cup at­tracted more than three bil­lion view­ers in 2014, and it is sure to draw at least as many this year. It is also sure to draw con­tro­versy. The games will be hosted by Rus­sia, a coun­try that fo­ments war, in­ter­feres in the elec­tions of sovereign na­tions, dis­crim­i­nates against mem­bers of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity and as­sas­si­nates its own cit­i­zens abroad. Ear­lier this year, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment an­nounced a po­lit­i­cal boy­cott of the World Cup to protest the poi­son­ing of Sergei and Yu­lia Skri­pal.

But this is hardly the first time that soc­cer has in­ter­sected with in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. Most fa­mously, in 1969, a Soc­cer War broke out be­tween El Sal­vador and Hon­duras. Sev­eral years later, in one of the most sto­ried soc­cer matches in Eu­ro­pean his­tory, a 1982 World Cup semi­fi­nal match be­tween France and West Ger­many cre­ated such an­i­mos­ity that politi­cians felt com­pelled to in­ter­vene — an ex­am­ple of just how long in­ter­na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion can take, even on the play­ing field.

The first World Cup match to end in penalty shots, the Franco-West Ger­man face­off in Seville be­came bet­ter known for a no­to­ri­ously vi­o­lent play. On a break­away, French player Pa­trick Bat­tis­ton col­lided head-on with Ger­man goalie Toni Schu­macher when Schu­macher charged him di­rectly, leav­ing Bat­tis­ton un­con­scious and with miss­ing teeth, cracked ribs and dam­aged ver­te­brae. Out­raged by the Ger­man goalie’s ag­gres­sive ma­noeu­vre and lack of con­tri­tion, the French pub­lic ex­pressed such an­tiGer­man hos­til­ity that West Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Sch­midt pub­licly apol­o­gized to French pres­i­dent François Mit­ter­rand. The two lead­ers sub­se­quently is­sued a joint state­ment in an ef­fort to calm the storm.

But while West Ger­many apol­o­gized, it was not lost on Ger­mans that the French char­ac­ter­ized them as “les boches” — a pe­jo­ra­tive term for Ger­man sol­diers in the First World War — and Nazis, who con­quered France in the Sec­ond World War. West Ger­mans were shocked to dis­cover that re­sent­ments they be­lieved had faded since the wars could be so quickly re­vived by a soc­cer match. Al­most 40 years of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ef­forts, rang­ing from diplo­matic agree­ments to eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion, youth ex­changes and part­ner cities, seemed for naught.

The an­i­mos­ity forced French and West Ger­man diplo­mats to con­front the fragility of their post­war al­liance — what the French for­eign min­istry de­scribed as an “ami­tié im­par­faite,” or im­per­fect friend­ship. Since 1982, the “Tragedy of Seville” or “Seville 82” has been memo­ri­al­ized in doc­u­men­taries, the­atre pieces, nov­els, dance per­for­mances and mu­sic. Its im­pact tran­scended sport, in part be­cause soc­cer claims such a sig­nif­i­cant place in mod­ern French and Ger­man his­tory.

For Ger­mans, the West Ger­man vic­tory at the 1954 World Cup marked a turn­ing point that al­lowed for the re­claim­ing of na­tional pride af­ter the cat­a­strophic de­feat of the Sec­ond World War. By con­trast, a West Ger­man loss to East Ger­many in 1974 rep­re­sented a griev­ous blow in the Cold War con­text. In 1990, af­ter the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, Ger­many’s World Cup tri­umph sym­bol­ized the uni­fi­ca­tion of the two Ger­man states. Six­teen years later, the Ger­mans hosted the World Cup in a “sum­mer fairy tale” that saw the emer­gence of a be­nign Ger­man na­tion­al­ism. When Ger­many won the World Cup in 2014, An­gela Merkel’s ap­pear­ance in the locker room rep­re­sented a high point of her chan­cel­lor­ship.

French soc­cer has an equally rich, if more con­tro­ver­sial his­tory. The French World Cup vic­tory in 1998 was widely cel­e­brated as a sym­bol of France’s suc­cess­ful in­te­gra­tion of im­mi­grant youth, a process that re­mains painfully in­com­plete de­spite the 2018 French na­tional team’s di­ver­sity. In 2010, the French World Cup team drew upon cen­turies of rev­o­lu­tion­ary tra­di­tion to en­gage in an un­prece­dented strike against man­age­ment. When an in­ter­na­tional star on the Parisian team was per­ceived to have in­sulted France in 2015, he re­ceived an of­fi­cial re­buke from no less than the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter.

Re­cent events re­mind us that the Franco-Ger­man re­la­tion­ship an­chors the Eu­ro­pean Union, largely be­cause Franco-Ger­man hos­til­i­ties con­trib­uted to a cen­tury of un­prece­dented war­fare in global his­tory. The state of those re­la­tions plays out eco­nom­i­cally, po­lit­i­cally, mil­i­tar­ily and cul­tur­ally, in­clud­ing in sport.

The im­pact of “Seville 82” on this cru­cial re­la­tion­ship il­lus­trates how sports of­fer a valu­able win­dow into so­ci­ety.

This is es­pe­cially true for soc­cer be­cause its fan­dom spans class, re­li­gious, racial, re­gional and gen­der di­vides. As Eu­rope’s in­dis­putably dom­i­nant sport, soc­cer sheds light on nu­mer­ous as­pects of Eu­ro­pean life, rang­ing from busi­ness cor­rup­tion and glob­al­iza­tion to vi­o­lence and crowd psy­chol­ogy. The sec­ondary sta­tus of women’s teams re­flects the con­tin­ued misog­yny in Eu­ro­pean so­ci­ety, while prej­u­dices against play­ers of colour demon­strate the un­re­solved lega­cies of racism and em­pire. If soc­cer has re­placed re­li­gion for mil­lions of Euro­peans in a sec­u­lar­ized age, na­tional pas­sions re­main pow­er­ful, tes­ti­fy­ing to the in­com­plete pro­ject of Eu­ro­pean unity.

But soc­cer can make po­lit­i­cal waves be­yond Eu­rope as well. The first match of the World Cup in Moscow’s Luzh­niki Sta­dium fea­tured Rus­sia squar­ing off against Saudi Ara­bia. Oil-rich pow­ers sup­port­ing op­po­site sides of the Syr­ian civil war, Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia re­cently forged a petroleumpro­duc­tion agree­ment that un­der­scores grow­ing Rus­sian in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East. Vic­tory for the Rus­sians, 5-0 over the Saudis de­spite be­ing ranked sec­ond to last among the World Cup’s 32 teams, vin­di­cates a squad linked to dop­ing and hooli­gan­ism and rep­re­sents yet an­other Saudi nod to Rus­sian dom­i­nance. Even if Saudi Ara­bia had tri­umphed, the very act of host­ing the World Cup, de­spite Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion, po­lit­i­cal au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and a widely re­ported cor­rupt bid­ding process, rep­re­sents an in­ter­na­tional pro­pa­ganda coup for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

It is per­haps fit­ting that these two teams kicked off a World Cup with­out the United States — the U.S. team failed to qual­ify — given the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­treat from global diplo­macy, es­pe­cially in the Mid­dle East. This pro­vides yet an­other re­minder of how sports can mir­ror in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics and even shape them.



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