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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Politics and the World Cup

The World Cup is much better than the Olympics, the Economist wrote last week, because it is hard to introduce politics into it. They wrote:
[T]he World Cup, unlike the Olympics, is wonderfully difficult to manipulate for political purposes. Over its long history, success at the Olympics has usually been a fairly accurate measure of global political power. Although the world now remembers the snub that Jesse Owens delivered to Nazi theories of racial superiority, the Germans came top of the Olympic medal table in 1936, reflecting the Nazi regime's growing power. During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly struggled to gain a symbolic victory, by winning the most medals at the Olympics. Already a similar, politically charged battle for supremacy between America and China looks likely in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

By contrast, the World Cup has its own hierarchy, which is pleasingly divorced from the global pecking order.
The point the article makes is bang on, and it's certainly true that the pecking order of teams in soccer is far removed from geopolitics. But hey, these are nations playing each other, and where there are nations there will surely be nationalism, no?

On that note, I direct you an an exceptional post from the New York Times's World Cup blog, in which the author writes, poignantly, about what political prisoners in Argentina went through during the 1978 World Cup. In reply to the 22nd comment there, the editor writes:
Since the best players in the world represent their nations rather than professional club sides at the World Cup, it is simply a fact that there are times when the matches do have political meaning [...]. In 1978, the fact that the tournament was played in Argentina, and organized in collaboration with that dictatorship, sent a clear political message that the world did not really care enough about the people imprisoned for their political beliefs within ear-shot of the main stadium to not play games there.

(NY Times link via reader Vimalanand Prabhu.)

Update (June 23): While on the subject, I came across an outstanding piece by one of my favourite modern journalists, Timothy Garton Ash, called "There is some corner of a Spanish field that is for ever Beckham." In it he eloquently explains why, despite the nationalism and xenophobia, football does more good than harm. The point that particularly struck me was when he wrote that football is "a powerful argument against racism." More:
Racists claim that people of different origins and skin colour are inferior. Every goal scored by Henry, every spin by Zidane, every inspired clearance by Ashley Cole, is the refutation. Beat that if you can, white thug. The most dramatic illustration of this is the French national team. The commanding heights of French politics, business and the media are dominated by smooth, mainly white types from the country's elite educational institutions, but when it comes to football, they have to call on the guys from the banlieues. Every World Cup victory for France is a defeat for Jean-Marie le Pen.
Yes, it's a beautiful game. In fact, it's more than a game, and more than beautiful.
amit varma, 2:46 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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