May 24, 2002

More Than A Game – Soccer Reflects, Shapes World Events

By Matt Melamed

As Americans find themselves re-engaged in international affairs, metaphors can help us understand the chaos of the world stage.

Take soccer.

The Irans and USA teams show football's ability to transcend politics during the 1998 World Cup.

The World Cup is more than a sports tournament — it is an international event in its own right. The final game of the last World Cup, won by host nation France, drew about 2 billion viewers. This year’s Cup will be held in Korea and Japan, the first time that two countries have co-hosted the tournament.

Imagine one in three people on Earth focused on the same event, their blood pressure rising and falling with the ebb and flow of a game played on a pitch about 100 meters long by 70 meters wide. The world’s most popular sport is connected to the deepest levels of individual, neighborhood and national identity around the globe.

Soccer has been the spark that ignited conflicts or reinvigorated diplomacy. In 1969, tensions flared between Honduras and El Salvador after Honduran landowners deported a few thousand Salvadorans. In the aftermath of a Salvadoran victory over Honduras in a soccer match, Salvadoran fans celebrated by burning Honduran flags and beating up Honduran fans. When the Honduran government did not receive the official apology it requested, war broke out. About 5,000 people died in the “Football War.”

When Iran and the United States were, by chance, placed in the same group at the 1998 World Cup, the world watched closely. In the weeks preceding the match, the pace of the diplomatic thaw between the two countries intensified. Prior to kickoff, each Iranian player gave his counterpart on the American team a white flower and the teams joined for an uncustomary group photo. Presidents Clinton and Khatami used the goodwill generated by the game as a catalyst to resume relations between the countries.

Multiple story lines will emerge during the month-long, 32-team event, but one that has already established itself is the first round match between England and Argentina.

England, which invented the game, has won the World Cup once, in 1966. While they have struggled in recent years, this year’s team is considered a dark horse to win the tournament.

Argentina is a two-time Cup winner, and enters the tournament as co-favorite with defending champion France. Argentina’s players are among the most talented in the world, and the team plays with flowing, offense-minded flair. Argentines, mired in an economic and political meltdown, are looking to the Cup as a way to reassert a positive national identity.

The matches between Argentina and England over the last four decades have resulted in tales equal to boxing in their corruption, brutality and athletic glory.

The first blow was landed in the 1966 World Cup quarter-final, when Argentine Antonio Rattin was ejected from a game against England on the hallowed ground of Wembley Stadium in London. When shown the red card, Rattin stubbornly refused to leave the pitch. After order was restored, England used its advantage to win the match and advance toward the title.

In the 1986 World Cup semifinal — against the backdrop of enmity cemented by the Falklands War — Argentina gained dramatic revenge, defeating England 2-1 on a goal by Diego Maradona. The English side protested that the goal was scored off Maradona’s hand, and television replays showed him purposely punching the ball into the goal. When asked about it after the match, Maradona said “the hand of God” had scored. Led by Maradona’s otherwise brilliant play, Argentina captured its second Cup title.

In the buildup to this year’s World Cup, events have again transpired to focus attention on the Argentina-England match. During club play earlier this year, David Beckham, captain of the English team, broke a bone in his foot after being tackled by Pedro Duscher, an Argentine playing professional ball in Spain. Beckham had been ejected from the England-Argentina match during the 1998 World Cup in France, which Argentina went on to win.

Beckham’s recovery has become a source of national concern. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has commented on the state of Beckham’s injury. Queen Elizabeth invited Beckham to Buckingham Palace, where she blessed both his foot and England’s chances.

Even the makeup of a country’s soccer team can become a battleground. Right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen’s surprise first-round electoral win drew comments from French player Robert Pires, who called on his teammates to refuse to play if the National Front leader was elected president. The multi-cultural French squad is the spectral opposite of Le Pen’s vision of France. Central defender Marcel Desailly was born in Ghana. Zinidine Zidane, world player of the year in 1998, is of Algerian heritage. Midfielder Patrick Viera’s parents are Senegalese, and defender Lilian Thuram was born in Senegal.

As Desailly stated in support of Pires, “The players in the French team, from diverse origins... are unanimous in condemning resurgent ideas of racism and exclusion.”

It is easy to dismiss the passion the World Cup generates as a diversion from social, economic, and political realities. But that underestimates the role soccer plays in the mani-festation of national identity and aspirations. The world pauses during matches. People will return to work elated or heartbroken, but also changed by the worldwide context of the game. For most of the billions who watch the matches, the World Cup represents their most active engagement with international events, sport or otherwise.

Those who watch the games are more than fans — they are participants in an international conversation.

Matt Melamed ( works for “The Beat Within”, a weekly writing workshop and publication for incarcerated youth in six San Francisco Bay Area counties. He plays soccer.

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