Football on its own does not have political significance, but in the age of globalization and being a global sport it can and has become a significant political instrument for good and for evil.
Football is definitely an agent of diplomacy between states, being the first step of engagement between states in a hostile relationship. Nixon used a different sport in his now famous “Ping pong diplomacy” to start diplomatic relations with China during the Cold War. Soccer has also been used as an expression of national identity (Palestinian soccer team).
Sport in general including Football may serve for spreading ideology. States often use sporting games to show their superiority of ideology. Argentina v Brazil would be a good example. A victory by one or the other is a matter of national pride. During the cold war a Russian (Soviet) victory in soccer over a Western nation could be interpreted as a victory for the Soviet culture, system over the liberal democracy capitalistic system.
Football improves mutual understanding and promotes peace in international relations. International Football matches between nations are often used as a tool of public diplomacy, considering that the aim of public diplomacy is also to promote mutual understanding.
Football is a safe way of expressing displeasure with other country and its policies and has been used by Arab and other Muslim nations to boycott the Israeli national soccer team that is competing in Europe rather than its geographic location – Asia. This is a clear example of expressing discontentment or raise objections about a political issue,
Football may often spark the conflicts that might turn into warfare like the one between Honduras and El Salvador, most famously known as the Football War, during the World Cup tournament game in 1969. There had been pre-existing conflicts between Honduras and Salvadorans, including immigration from El Salvador to Honduras, but the tensions between the two states exploded by the football competition. This match actually started a real military war between the two countries
Political Football around the World
Qatar’s position on the international soccer scene:
Qatar has exploited its wealth and political influence (some say bribes and FIFA contacts) using Football as a political strategy. Qatar was awarded the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The Qatar Foundation signed the most expensive sponsorship deal ever with FC Barcelona worth is EUR 150 million over five years. This is the first time FC Barcelona gets paid to wear advertising on their shirts. Qatar-owned television company Al-Jazeera bought the international rights to broadcast the football World Cup in 2018 and 2022 for the Middle East and North Africa (23 countries).
The soccer revolutions in The Middle East & North Africa
In 2011, during the “Arab Spring”, soccer induced revolutions occurred in North African countries As part of the “spring” rising opposition groups, football fans and football clubs acted as major factors in the Middle East and North Africa – especially in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Barcelona FC v Real Madrid FC
FC Barcelona, a club known not only for its success on the field. Barça is an emblem of Catalonia, a region that, while technically under the authority of Spain, speaks its own language, flies its own flag, tells its own history, and has long sought greater autonomy from Madrid. This tension extends beyond the playing field as well. So, when Real Madrid, — seen as representative of the unity of Spain — comes to town, the rivalry is fulled by politics as well as sport.
st famously known as the Football War, during the World Cup tournament game in 1969. There had been pre-existing conflicts between Honduras and Salvadorans, including immigration from El Salvador to Honduras, but the tensions between the two states exploded by the football competition. This match actually started a real military war between the two countries
US Men’s National Team vs. East Germany (April 1, 1990)
On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Five months later, the US and East Germany played a game of football in the former East Germany. The significance of this match was obviously political in nature, The match was played at the 10,000-seat Berlin Sportforum and the East Germans won 3-2.
US Men’s National Team vs. Iran (June 21, 1998)
The New York Daily News ran the furthest with its headline, dubbing it “World Cup War.” Then-US Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg joked that, “all we need is an Iraqi referee.”
US-Iran at the 1998 World Cup would indeed be, as Sports Illustrated termed it at the time, “A Devil of a Draw.”
US Men’s National Team vs. Cuba (Sept. 6, 2008)
As the US prepared to hand off its presidency from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, Cuba was in the midst of a political turmoil. On Feb. 20, 2008, Fidel Castro ended one of the longest autocratic rules in history by stepping down from the Cuban presidency after 32 years. Seven months after Castro left office for good, the US played a World Cup qualifying match in Havana. It was the first time the US national team had been to Cuba for a match in 61 years. The U.S. won 1:0
US U16 Girls National Team vs. Iran (April 26, 2016)
The match was more significant than met the eye. No US women’s team on any level – from the U-15s all the way up to the senior team – had ever played Iran
Mussolini manipulates the “man in black,” 1934
“Il Duce” was determined to use this World Cup on home soil to showcase his fascist Italy. Mussolini had his own trophy created for the event — the Coppa Del Duce — which was six times the size of the Jules Rimet, and to this day allegations remain the tournament was fixed so that only Italy would collect it.
According to the BBC’s “World Cup Stories” book by Chris Hunt, there were suggestions that the Italian dictator himself picked the referees. In the semifinal against Austria, Mussolini’s Azzurri team won 2-1, but after the game their opponents complained the game was fixed.
Austrian star humiliates Nazis, 1938
Austria had one of the game’s greatest sides in the 1930s, but when the Nazis annexed their neighbors, the nation’s “Wunderteam” were forced to withdraw from the World Cup and merge with Germany. Star striker Matthias Sindelar so opposed his nation’s loss of independence that he refused to play for Germany. During a so-called “Reconciliation Game” to mark the merging of the two sides, Sindelar made his feelings quite clear in a 2-0 win for Austria. According to German historian Nils Havemann’s book “Fussball unterm Hakenkreuz,” the center-forward scored his beloved country’s first and then, when the second goal went in, he danced in celebration in front of Nazi officials.
Algerians play for independence, 1958
Halfway through Algeria’s War of Independence, the French national team called up a handful of Algerians playing in the French soccer league for the World Cup in Sweden.
Given the chance of glory, fame and fortune, the players chose national identity instead. Rather than attend a pre-tournament friendly against Switzerland, they decided to flee France, gather at the headquarters of the Front Liberation National in Tunisia and launch an “illegal” national team, risking arrest for desertion in the process. Rachid Maflouki had won the French championship with Saint Etienne before getting the call from Les Bleus, but decided there were more important matters at stake than his personal success.
Zaire players crack under Presidential pressure, 1974
It’s remembered as one of the World Cup’s funniest moments, but the truth is much darker. Already 3-0 down and facing a Brazilian free-kick, Zaire’s right-back Ilunga Mwepu seemingly forgot the rules of the game, charged at the ball and skyed it away before the whistle had even been blown.
The Leopards, the first sub-Saharan African nation to reach the finals, had already been humiliated 9-0 by Yugoslavia before losing 2-0 to Scotland, and were told by President Mobutu’s henchmen that if they lost to Brazil by more than three goals they wouldn’t be allowed to return home.
The German nation divided, 1974
East Germany versus West at the 1974 World Cup was perhaps the most politically-charged match of all time. After the Second World War, the divided nation had become the main arena for the Cold War, and this fixture in Hamburg represented a head-to-head between the two ideologies.
Although the game was actually the last in the group and it had become clear that both teams would qualify from the group stage, that did not diminish the tension surrounding the clash.
With home advantage, European champions West Germany were favorites but it was the East German Jurgen Sparwasser who scored the only goal of the game.
Argentine junta swaps grain for glory, 1978
Argentina’s junta, which had seized power just a couple of years earlier, was determined to use the World Cup it was hosting as propaganda for the regime.According to a 1986 article by journalist Maria Laura Avignolo of Britain’s Sunday Times, and supported by David Yallop in his book “How They Stole the Game,” the junta used bribery and intimidation to help win the cup.In the group stages, Argentina needed to beat Peru by four goals in their last game to progress. General Jorge Videla made a timely pre-match visit to the Peruvian dressing-room to talk to the players about “Latin American unity” before the host nation rattled six past a side that had previously held eventual finalists Holland to a goalless draw.
Avignolo claimed that in the weeks following the Peru game, an impromptu cargo of 35,000 tonnes of wheat left Argentina for Lima and that the military regime issued an interest-free loan of $50 million to the Peruvian government.
Germany enjoys “Partyotism,” 2006
The tournament slogan “A time to make friends” pretty much said it all. The organizers of Germany 2006 set out to woo the world, and in the process the country learned to love itself.Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s flee-flowing football injected a feel-good factor back into the national psyche, and Germans realized they could enjoy patriotism again — or as the local media billed it, “partyotism.”
The Koreas refuse to play nicely, 2008
North and South Korea both successfully managed to qualify for South Africa 2010, but there were plenty of bad-tempered squabbles along the way. The bickering got so bad that world governing body FIFA eventually had to intervene after North Korea announced it would not let the South play its national anthem or wave its flag on their territory. So determined were the North Koreans that they were even prepared to play their “home” game abroad. In the end, the fixture took place in Shanghai, where the North Korean coach complained that their rivals had poisoned their food. In a statement about the match, the North’s football association said: “It was beyond all doubt that the incident was a product of a deliberate act perpetrated by adulterated foodstuff as [the players] could not get up all of a sudden just before the match.”
According to a report by the BBC, the South’s soccer federation — Korea Football Association — said a sports doctor had examined the North Korean players and found no serious problem.
Football diplomacy between old enemies, 2008-09
Serious sport is war minus the shooting, remarked English author George Orwell. So it was refreshing last year when Armenia and Turkey used the beautiful game to make peace.
The leaders of the two countries met up to watch a World Cup qualifier between their nations after almost a century of bitterness following the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Turks during World War One.Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended the initial game in Armenia in 2008, which the hosts lost 2-0, and his counterpart Serzh Sarkisian agreed to join him for the return fixture the following year for further thawing of diplomatic relations.No doubt the fact that neither side had a chance of qualifying for South Africa helped keep things civil.
Updated in 2013 by Brittney Balser and Alessandro Santalbano