How Henry Kissinger spoke football when playing politics

Uniquely among US politicians, here was somebody who knew the beautiful game

The scene was Zavidovo, the Politburo's favourite retreat, on a May morning in 1973. A few weeks before Leonid Brezhnev was due to visit Washington, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's national security adviser, had come to Moscow to prepare the ground for the summit.

The transcript of his chat with the general secretary is thick with the stuff of Cold War politics, exchanges about ongoing attempts to limit the proliferation of nuclear missiles, jibes about the contrasting price of grain in both countries, and lots of shape-shifting regarding the arms race.

Eventually, they turned from trying to avoid mutually assured destruction and got around to soccer.

“I just read a book about Brazilian football,” said Brezhnev. “There was a great Brazilian player, Garrincha, better than Pele. There was a bar in his town and it was going broke. The owner was a friend of Garrincha, and Garrincha announced a reception for all his friends in that bar. After that, the place was chock full all year.”


The Russian leader was comfortable taking the conversation off on a tangent with the American because, uniquely among Washington politicians of that generation, here was somebody who knew the beautiful game.


A war criminal to many (he watched the 1978 World Cup as a special guest of Argentina’s murderous military junta), a master diplomat to others (he, ahem, persuaded the Brazilian government to allow Pele join the New York Cosmos), Kissinger’s passion for soccer was a curious hallmark of his career.

Indeed, a trawl through the US state department’s archive last week reveals a treasure trove of nuggets showcasing his appreciation of the sport.

In several memos to Nixon, his character sketches of Brezhnev refer again and again to the Russian's willingness to put soccer even before affairs of state. During the Krushchev regime, the future supremo was regarded as lazy for regularly sloping off to watch matches while asking his fellow apparatchiks to cover for him. Kissinger even describes how Brezhnev hastily adjourned a serious conclave about interballistic missiles because one of the Moscow clubs had a key fixture he didn't want to miss.

As much as anything, Kissinger appears to have used soccer as part of his diplomatic arsenal. A tense encounter with Polish leader Edward Gierek is lightened with a sidebar about how his country would surely have defeated West Germany at the 1974 World Cup if the rain and dreadful conditions hadn't hampered their free-flowing style.

The pair even have a giggle about how the American had managed to coax a smile out of hard-nosed Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister, when goading him about the clash between East and West Germany at the same tournament.

Others were obviously privy to his inclinations too. The foreign minister of El Salvador circumvented a White House ban on discussing his country’s problems with Honduras, the so-called “Soccer War”, by reminding Kissinger of its origins. “Anything that arises from soccer, I’m interested in,” he admitted.

In one more lengthy memo to Nixon, he does his best to explain that while attacks on Honduran fans at a World Cup qualifier in San Salvador sparked that particular conflagration, the enmity between the pair had deeper and longer-standing causes.

As a child growing up in in southern Germany, Heinz, as he was then known, started out as a goalkeeper before a broken arm saw him switch to inside-right. His playing career was hampered by a lack of talent, not to mention oppressive Nazi regulations dictating Jews could only play on Jewish teams against other Jewish teams.

A passionate supporter of his local club, Fürth, he continued to go to see them play even as Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws and rhetoric ensured Jews found on the terraces ran the risk of getting beaten up by their fellow fans.

Once the Kissingers fled in 1938 and arrived in New York via London, Heinz became Henry but remained faithful to his first love. Appointed as a US army interpreter in the closing stages of World War II, he soon found himself back in his newly liberated home country where his fellow soldiers remember him driving a Mercedes (freshly confiscated from the Nazis) to amateur soccer matches.

Spy plane

If most American GIs were suitably puzzled by soccer, it was to play a far more important role in the country’s subsequent foreign policy than they could ever have imagined.

In September 1970, a U-2 spy plane took aerial photographs of Cienfuegos, a naval base on Cuba’s south coast. Nobody thought much about their content until Kissinger saw them and marched into the office of President Nixon’s chief of staff HR Haldeman, demanding to see the commander in chief. As Haldeman eyed the reconnaissance, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

“It’s a Cuban seaport, Haldeman, and these pictures show the Cubans are building soccer fields,” said an increasingly more irate Kissinger. “’Those soccer fields could mean war.” When Haldeman still failed to make the connection between armed conflict and sport, Kissinger’s voice went up a notch.

“Cubans play baseball!” he said. “Russians play soccer!”

That might have been a convenient generalisation (Cubans played soccer too), but his surmising that freshly lined soccer pitches represented telling evidence there were Soviet sailors based in Cienfuegos proved correct.

Of course, as somebody who, as a teenager in Bavaria, once set his own team up to play an 8-2-0 formation to protect the goal, he knew a thing or two about taking appropriate defensive measures.