Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Can Futbol Matter?

International sports has a place in international relations. There's something about meaningless competitions in games on a global scale that forces international tensions to the fore, and highlights conflicts.
Just ask the Soviet men's water polo team in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Or the 1972 US men's basketball team at Munich. Or the Israeli wrestling team at the same games.
Soccer is no different. Sometimes it can even result in tragedy, as in the death of a Colombian defender in the 1994 World Cup who scored an "own goal" (a goal knocked inadvertently into the goal you are defending), who was gunned down upon his return home.
And sometimes, it can unite a nation that is torn by bloody civil strife. We saw this in the last World Cup, in 2006, when factions battling for control of the Ivory Coast declared a truce that lasted the length of the games. While it wasn't perfect, is it a coincidence that just nine months later, a peace accord was signed? I think not. And cetainly it gives Didier Drogba and his side incentive this time out.
Which brings me to the point of this article: The World Cup 2010 comes to a continent torn asunder with growing pains, corruption, exploitation, and yet, hope. Somalia is overrun with terrorists and pirates. Zimbabwe seems to be hanging together by a thread and this unrest is destablizing northern South Africa itself (some of the games will be played in the north in Johannesburg and its environs). And that's all before we look at the war in the Congo and the situation in Darfur.
And all this happens against a larger backdrop: the lurking threat of global Islamic terror and the inclusion of nations such as the US and the UK in the 32 teams heading to the tournament.
It would be easy to focus on the negative politics of potential matches like Ghana versus Nigeria or Algeria (to make up a crisis out of thin air), or South Korea v. North Korea.
Instead, a thought experiment: what would it mean to Africa if Cameroon, or Nigeria, or Cote d'Ivoire, or South Africa itself, were to win the Copa Mondial?