With global attention focused on the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, there are the usual bleatings about politics being entangled with sport. Qatar being a country with no previous football tradition, these are being magnified beyond the usual levels.
Selling out to big business! Ignoring Qatar’s human rights record! Preventing fans drinking! LBGT and migrant worker abuse! We don’t want those sort of things in a sports contest. Do we?
Politics have always been a part of sport. In ancient Rome the four chariot racing teams first merged into two, then became political organisations, as they attracted people of similar outlooks and characteristics to each other. To the present day, social divisions in many countries are expressed through teams playing the national sport: old working class South Sydney and the middle class Roosters in Australian Rugby League, posh Surrey and down to earth Yorkshire in cricket.
It is all a question of what sort of politics you want. In the end, as in any other political sphere, public pressure eventually corrects abuses in any direction, even if temporarily. If the football authorities go too far the public won’t stand for it, and next time round, they will be seen to be doing differently, as the development of the rules of any sport demonstrates.
What we are witnessing in Qatar is a collection of encounters between political entities with various layers of meaning attached. These layers include whether the actor is traditionally strong or weak in geopolitics or football, how they relate to the major trends of the day, the ethnic makeup of their teams, the histories of their coaches and how much they represent their presumed political position on the world stage.
For this we should all rejoice. International sport has always provided opportunities to do what diplomacy is too scared to do.
You can get people together to dream impossible dreams of glory without making commitments which will haunt you in the corridors of power. You can boycott your enemies, such as Apartheid era South Africa, whilst still buying their goods and leaving them alone when you are happy to intervene in other countries.
All the political statements attacking politics in sport and in this World Cup in particular, miss one essential point. The more ways there are of gaining influence in the world, the more countries and individuals can benefit from those. If sport is a substitute for warfare, it provides one of the few alternatives in which everyone wins.
The Whole World In Our Hands
The biggest political statement of any sport is to hold a world championship. American baseball actually named its World Series after a newspaper, but is often derided for proclaiming its winner the “world champion” when only one or two countries are involved. This is held to manifest both American Exceptionalism and American ignorance and insularity, by those who then go running to the investment, aid packages and political friendship the US offers with strings attached.
Having a world championship, even if only a small number of counties are involved and there is little real competition, means that what your people do, on their own initiative, has value. Once the Olympic Games were the de facto world championships of all the competing sports; however, now international sports bodies run their own to show that they and their members have arrived.
The first edition of what we now call the FIFA World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930. Why there, why then? It was all to do with a variety of political issues, some sports related but many not.
In 1930 the most important international football tournament was the British Home Championship, in which England, birthplace of the game, competed against Scotland, Wales and Ireland in a league format. England had never lost a home match to a country outside the British Isles, and would continue to hold that record until 1949. So it was clear that the professional leagues of the British Isles offered the highest standard of football available, other countries being in their shadow.
When other countries played against each other more often, and felt the need for a governing body to oversee the spread of the international game, they naturally turned to the home nations for help. However the Football Association in London, along with their counterparts in the other home nations, rejected the establishment of such an organisation.
To this day the governing body of English football is simply called the Football Association, without including the name of the country, because it was invented to rule the whole football world. If other countries played the game, they did based on English sufferance, and international football only has value if the English could retain control of it, culturally as well as administratively.
So in 1904 seven European nations established FIFA as the international governing body. The home nations later joined and then left again, twice, over various issues which represented a challenge to their assumed authority. No longer did the other nations assume that their opinions and interests were less valuable, even if they couldn’t play the game so well, and it wasn’t as developed as a social entity.
In both 1924 and 1928 Uruguay won the Olympic football tournament. In 1930 the country celebrated its centenary, as one of the many countries which had broken away from a colonial power. So as part of the celebrations it showed the world what it was good at, and hosted the first World Cup. These would then be held every four years, just like the Olympics, to show that the event was of the highest recognised standing.
Therefore the first World Cup was effectively the first summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. The FIFA members weren’t against the home nations or non-footballing nations, but set themselves alongside them, with their own priorities.
They have also won the argument, as everyone knows Uruguay won that tournament, but few now know who won the British Home Championship that year. In time the FIFA tournaments came to dominate, and when the home nations finally joined for good after World War Two they had to accept equal status with the rest, not expect to be revered as the unquestioned authorities.
The founders of FIFA included powerful nations such as France, Belgium and, a little later, Germany. But it would have taken several generations for a country like Uruguay, even though it had a European level economy and institutions at the time, to have sat at the same tables politically with the world’s great powers. That’s why there was a First World War, and a Second War War, and a Cold War.
Only through sport could they try, and only through the World Cup could they succeed. Uruguay has always been suitably grateful, despite its politics taking a southern turn when they were no longer winning World Cups.
We Are Who We Aren’t
The next World Cup was held in Mussolini’s Italy. Even then Fascism was polarising international geopolitical opinion, between adherents, implacable opponents and let’s give it a chancers. Italy held and won the tournament to demonstrate that other countries could take it at its own estimation: victorious but humiliated in World War One, now rediscovering the purpose and identity others took for granted, and should not deny to Italy.
Hosting the World Cup has continued to be a political message countries are unable to make in the diplomatic realm. Nations are entrusted to care for other nations, regardless of their differences, and provide a basic humanity and decency all can embrace.
Not every country is considered capable of doing this, hence the objections to Qatar hosting this edition. Nor are some acceptable as international standard bearers, which is why Eastern Bloc countries never hosted it despite the long footballing traditions of places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia, both early and subsequent finalists.
Taking part is also problematic for some, given who they might have to play against. But football finds a diplomatic solution actual geopolitics doesn’t: only in football is Israel a part of Europe, because the imposed Jewish State is more tolerated there, just as it is politically without that solution being adopted in political arenas.
North Korea has always been an international pariah, and when it qualified for the 1966 World Cup, thanks in part to withdrawals, there was talk of diplomatic incidents and boycotts. However this World Cup was being held in England, so the British, who didn’t recognise North Korea, were still determined to show they were the inventors of Corinthian values.
Based in the socialist Northeast of England, the locals did not see the North Korean players as the usual reds under the bed, trying to spread their poison all over the globe by repression, but as funny little people from a country not expected to do well. When they shocked the world by beating Italy and reaching the quarter-finals, they did more to give Communism a human face than anything Dubcek was to temporarily achieve in the Prague Spring, and only through football could it happen.
The complex issues of race and identity were thrust to the forefront in 1998 when France won their first World Cup with a multi-ethnic team which showed starkly the difference between actual non-racism and political anti-racism. To this day, no diplomatic representation of anywhere has been able to make such a statement of the practical benefits of a common humanity, even at forums such as the United Nations, because they would be considered weak and untrustworthy by their friends, who they can’t beat in other dimensions people care about.
In 1954 West Germany won its first World Cup in the match known as the Miracle of Bern, beating the still legendary Hungarian team which had already hammered them in the qualifying stages. In other areas of life, West Germany had only recently been allowed into the international club, and was still constantly having to prove it was a completely new state, with acceptable values, nothing like Nazi Germany.
The 1954 World Cup Final was the one event which turned Germany from snake to lion, just as the 2006 competition, hosted by Germany, made Germans and the rest of the world feel they could wave their flags and support their country again without these things having negative connotations. Its politicians and diplomats had done all humanly possible to achieve this for the previous six decades, but only through the political realm of football did they pull it off.
Works Both Ways
Maybe things would have been different if the two Cold War era superpowers, the USA and USSR, had also been the best countries at association football. When the Soviet Union and Canada dominated ice hockey their “Summit Series” did little to improve anything politically for either side, only entrenching accusations and hostility. When the USA boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a gesture Afghans still appreciate, the Soviets inevitably boycotted Los Angeles 1984, the Olympic Movement not being stronger than the sum of its parts.
But association football has many inbuilt advantages for anyone wanting to make a political point. First, it is the world’s most popular sport, and the World Cup its most prestigious tournament. You are automatically part of something people both want and look up to if your country has a place in it, a position every politician wants to be in.
Second, not only do friends and enemies, strong and weak, meet as equals, they interact according to a different set of rules. They have the opportunity to behave in ways the usual power relations do not allow, and whether they win or lose, there is mutual respect in the fact they all agree to follow the same laws of the same game.
Third, everyone can pick their best bits and emphasise them. At this World Cup both Iran and Saudi Arabia are making a positive impact. Not only is this due to the skills and commitment of the players, but to the same physical characteristics which would mark them out as terrorists if they walked through the streets of a European capital. Only the good parts show when you are in the best company, unlike in other forms of political interaction.
Those who want politics out of sport never seem to understand that if the two are connected, they should also want sport out of politics. How many people call for that?
In many countries involvement with, and appreciation of, sport is an undoubted political asset. Even Tony Blair, famously uninterested in and largely ignorant of football, “outed” himself as a Newcastle United fan on national television when he had won a landslide election victory; having already gained the credibility he needed every other way.
This World Cup will have geopolitical ramifications like all the others, some obvious, some more subtle. As always, they will have positive impacts on everyone except arms manufacturers, oppressors and the architects of poverty.
If you want politics out of sport, you leave it in the hands of these people. Even if you hate football, this is something you might conceivably hate more.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.