The Apolitical Facade of Sports

Like music, movies and books, sports is one of the components of popular culture and a reflection of the larger masses. Democratic and authoritarian states compete against each other under the same circumstances with the same goal – to win. In this article, The Perspective explores the role sports play when it comes to national identity and politics.

100 hours. 6000 minutes. 360 000 seconds. The year is 1969. El Salvador and Honduras are competing against each other in the football World Cup qualifiers. Three games in total. Best out of three wins. The tension between the neighbouring countries is thick.

Game one. Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Honduras wins by 1-0. Some disturbances are apparent. Game two. Location: San Salvador, El Salvador. El Salvador wins by 3-0. The tension between the two countries is great. The Salvadoreans mock the national flag and anthem of Honduras. The Honduran fans are provoked and brutalised. The Honduran team is harassed with dead rats and rotten eggs flying through the broken windows of their hotel rooms. Game three. Location: Mexico City, Mexico the world cup host. El Salvador wins by 3-2. El Salvador qualifies for the 1970 World Cup. Honduras breaks off diplomatic relations with El Salvador the very same day of the game.

The third game was played on June 27th. By July 14th, El Salvador had invaded their neighbour and war was a fact. This was how the short war between Honduras and El Salvador broke out. The conflict is often referred to as the ”Football War” but it is also known as the 100 Hour War.

The fundamental causes of war were not solely based on the game but mainly on areas such as migration, trade and land disputes. Football plays an essential role in society in Latin America. Even though football was not the main cause of conflict it was football that pushed the two countries over the limit and resulted in the deaths of thousands, over a hundred thousand refugees and the last fought duels with propeller planes. As always, it is all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

The Perspective spoke with David Webber, Senior Lecturer in Football Studies at Solent University to find out more about the relationship between football and politics. On the question if he thinks that sports are political Webber responds:
—“FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have all made declarations recently about the need to keep sport and politics separate from one another. Indeed, part of the appeal of sport, and football in particular, certainly in its purest form, is that it appears to be apolitical. It is possible to watch, play and enjoy sport with someone else regardless of that person’s political beliefs. Football, with its billions of followers across the globe in many respects speaks a common language and transcends many of the things that so often divide us. However – and this is the crucial point, sport, and football, is always political. It always reflects the society in which it is played – and, of course, society is inherently political. The same sort of power structures and hierarchies, whether they be financial, political and social, that exist in society, all, in some shape or form, exist within sport, and it is therefore impossible to disentangle the two from one another.”

Webber continues to say:
—“For decades now, sport remains a tool for states to announce themselves and promote their
ideologies on the global stage. The 1934 World Cup, hosted and won by Italy, was used by Il
Duce to showcase fascism, while two years later, the Berlin Olympics attempted to reassert
Aryan superiority.”

Edgar Chaparro/Unsplash

When asked if he thinks that football could potentially lead to any future conflicts between states Webber says:
—“It is often argued that the now infamous riot at Dinamo Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium on 13
May 1990 sparked Croatia’s war of independence. This is, however, a myth. It was, in fact, a
fragile, multi-ethnic polity, fractured with deep historical divisions, that triggered the violence which would lead to the bloody conflicts that fuelled the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. That, however, is not to say that football did not play a part in amplifying these tensions or provide a vehicle through which these identities and divisions could be manifested and displayed. Other examples abound of simmering tensions between states and political entities being played out on the football field. Clubs from Russia and Ukraine cannot, for instance, play each other due to the unfolding crisis between the two nations. Despite being located in the Middle East, Israel plays its qualification matches against European countries. The Arab-Israeli conflict, and subsequent Arab League boycott of Israel, mean that several Islamic nations refuse to play Israel.”

He continues:
— “Given these examples, there is certainly the possibility for football to spark a conflict
between two or more states. The reality, however, is that it is long standing grievances rather
than football matches themselves that will be the real cause for these wars. These examples,
however, underline my earlier point that football itself remains a reflection and a product of
the society in which it is played. In highly divided societies and contexts, football becomes a
particularly contested terrain. It provides the stage for the symbols, meanings, and identities
constructed by these ‘imagined communities’ to be performed and enacted, and as such offers
the possibility for political conflict, revolution and, sometimes, even redemption.”

The Perspective also spoke with Thomas Bodström, Former Minister of Justice and former right-defender in the Swedish national league, who also thinks that sports can be political. He sees sports as a tool for states to express politics and emphasises that football could not only potentially lead to conflicts but also to further democratisation of the world. He thinks that:
— “Politics can be enacted through sports since world leaders can draw benefit from their country succeeding in different sporting events and competitions.”

Usually, we do not associate watching football with engaging in a political activity. Sports are instead traditionally perceived as entertainment for the larger masses. But, as David Webber and Thomas Bodström underline football also often has political implications. Further, within the larger masses, patriotic sentiments and thoughts grow through sports which politicises it. Losing can enhance irritation or dislike towards other groups and, like in the case of El Salvador and Honduras, winning or losing can be a matter of life and death. While the apolitical facade of sports reflects that it is mainly a game between nations, the core of sports reveals that it is so much more.

Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash

Karolina Boyoli

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