Sport has a long history of being used as a political tool, and it’s sometimes hard to separate sports and politics. Football has had the role of both uniting nations and turning nations — and people — against each another, its status often wielding international influence. The following are 10 conflicts that have politicized football, with the sport being used either positively or negatively. Either way, they demonstrate the enormous impact of the game.
Sources: Telegraph.co.uk, FourFourTwo.com, TheGuardian.com, TheNational.ae, NairaLand.com, OutsideoftheBoot.com
Perhaps the conflict most synonymous with politics and football, a so-called “Football War” broke out between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 following a qualifying match for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. Rioters turned violent with one another after the second match between the two countries, and Salvadorans began fleeing Honduras by the thousands. Twelve days after the game, Honduras broke diplomatic ties with El Salvador, who in return launched an attack two weeks later against Honduras. After almost a week of fighting, a cease fire took effect and troops were withdrawn.
While some conflicts seem to be exacerbated by football, occasionally football stars can be important tools for peace. Côte d’Ivoire football star Didier Drogba became a hero in his home country for his contributions to the national team, as well as his success in Chelsea in the Premier League, but he took his talents off the field in 2005. After leading his team to qualify for the 2006 World Cup to be held in Germany, he fell to his knees in front of cameras and a live TV audience, pleading with combatants back home to lay down their arms in a five-year civil war. Less than a week later, Drogba’s wish came true.
During World War I, the infamous Christmas Truce took place on Christmas Day in 1914, in which English and Germans soldiers lay down their arms to sing carols, exchange gifts, and enjoy the holiday. While it is not documented entirely, evidence exists that opposing armies played football against each another on that day, once again showing the uniting power of football.
Going into the 1998 FIFA World Cup, expectations were low for the French national team, and controversy surrounded the multiracial make-up of the team. Much of it stemmed from Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the country’s far-right National Front Party. Many right-wingers refused to recognize the national team, criticizing its coach for putting black players on the roster, as well as those of Arab descent (including Zinedine Zidane, a Frenchman of Algerian descent). The French team would go on to win the title on its home soil as hosts of the tournament, uniting, if ever so briefly, a country historically wracked with racial tension.
During the Biafran War, the forces of the Nigerian military and the Biafra secessionist movement decided to lay down their arms for 48 hours. The reason? Brazilian football legend Pele was coming to Lagos to play in an exhibition match, and everyone wanted to watch. Fighting recommenced shortly after, but the brief lull will always be remembered.
In the early 20th century, football began to grow popular in Egypt after being introduced by British imperialism in the region. The game flourished from the cities to the countryside, and soon became a symbol of imperial resistance. In 1905, activist Mustafa Kamil founded the Students Club for those excluded from other elitist sporting clubs, which soon became the Al Ahly Sporting Club. The club — its name means “the national” — adopted the red and white of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag, and its victories inevitably ended in protests against British rule. Since that time, football has long had a political role in Egypt, and the country’s clubs were heavily involved in the 2011 Arab Spring.
Following its independence in 1948, Israel became one of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation. After the 1974 Asian Cup in Iran, Israel lost in a tense match-up to Iran, after which other Arab states led by Kuwait voted to exclude Israel from AFC competitions. Israel was expelled from the AFC, and spent the next decade competing in other continental tournaments, mainly in Europe and Oceania.
In 1961, the South African football association was formally suspended from FIFA for its noncompliance with non-discriminatory regulations. The suspension stayed in place until 1976, when South Africa was formally expelled from FIFA following the Soweto uprising. It wasn’t until 1991 that a new multiracial South African Football Association was created, and was re-admitted to FIFA in the post-apartheid era.
Following the poor performance of the North Korean side in the 2010 World Cup (the team lost all three of its group-stage matches, including a 7-0 loss to Portugal), the entire squad was forced to stand on stage at the People’s Palace of Culture and endure a public shaming from the sports minister, Pak Myong-choi, in front of 400 government officials, students, and journalists. Others also reported that the team’s coach, Kim Jong-hun, was expelled from the Workers’ Party of Korea and was forced to become a builder as punishment for “betraying” Kim Jong-un, the now-president (but then-former heir) of the country.
As Mussolini tightened his control over Italy in 1938, he sought to retain his country’s possession of the World Cup trophy, won in 1934 during the previous tournament. Before the 1938 final match against Hungary, Il Duce sent his players a telegram that said, “Vincere o morire!” which means, “Win or die!” The players took the warning to heart, and went on to win the championship. Apparently, being threatened with execution by a murderous dictator is pretty good incentive for football players.