Soccer and geopolitics: reimagining the world
Economic and political might can be a poor guide to success on the field
Ireland’s win against Wales, courtesy of James McClean’s winning goal, brings the national team closer to a place at the World Cup – and reminds us that international soccer has a way of subverting the rules of global power. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
With Ireland’s win against Wales, Martin O’Neill’s team is within two matches of a spot at the World Cup – another reminder that international soccer has a way of subverting the rules of global power.
With Germany, France, Brazil, Japan and South Korea all qualified, the world’s leading economic powers will be well represented in Russia. But in general, economic and geopolitical might are a poor guide to success on the field; Iceland (population: 330,000) will be in Russia, but not the United States, China or India. In Africa, the strength of Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa shows that economic power is more closely correlated to footballing prowess than in Europe, where football tends to invert the economic order. Northern European powerhouses may balance their books better than the profligate southerners, but while Spain, Italy and Portugal were leading the way on the pitch in recent years, Holland, Sweden and Finland were often getting thumped (Germany was the exception).
In other ways, football can reflect geopolitical trends. England has the most globalised league, just as London has one of the most outward-looking economies, but English football, just like Brexit Britain, has a strikingly inward-looking culture.
Football draws heavily on militaristic language. The Irish team is adept at aerial bombardments and off-the-ball skirmishes; James McClean’s winner was, depending on your preference, a shot, a strike, a bullet, a missile or a rocket. The game can stoke national resentments and feed off wider rivalries. Yet war has never broken out over football. Often its effect is the opposite. The Iran-US match in 1998 was a rare moment of bilateral détente, while co-hosting the 2002 World Cup helped reconciliation between Japan and South Korea. If football is war by other means, it’s war without consequences.
Next year’s World Cup, hosted in an authoritarian state by a discredited ruling body in Fifa, will – like the game itself – reflect some of our world’s worst instincts. But it will also allow us, if only fleetingly, to imagine turning that world on its head.