War by Other Names, Liberation on the Pitch
The vaguely Clausewitzian football-as-war metaphor isn’t exactly new. Indeed, if one reads the English tabs, one sometimes wonders if international football can be written about using any other metaphor.
(Heartfelt aside: please, God, let us go just one World Cup without the English meeting either Germany or Argentina…just one World Cup where we are all spared the ravings of the necrophiliac, war-obssessed English press)
Nor has the political-benefits-to-the-ruling- regime-of-winning-the-world-cup” meme been short of admirers. Both Harold Wilson and Jorge Videla were said to have owed a portion of their political careers to their countries’ World Cup successes of 1966 and 1978, respectively. The same argument has also been made with respect to the Medici regime after Brazil’s 1970 win, although the converse argument – that Brazil’s poor performance at West Germany ’74 might have caused Medici’s to leave in 1975 – is rarely made.
Of course, these ideas are not without foundation. It is certainly true that Mussolini pumped a great deal of money (and pressure on referees) into the effort to make Italy World Champions in 1934, and that year’s victories - along with the somewhat more legitimate win in Paris in 1938 - delivered the fascists a great deal of prestige.
But some of the commentary in this vein is getting a little silly. The Angola-Portugal case, for instance. The idea that Angola would be “specially motivated” for an upset because they were facing their old colonial masters isn’t farfetched, but let’s face it – Angola will be happy just to get a goal in this tournament; revenging five centuries of colonial rule is secondary (plus, let’s not forget – Angolans have already kicked the crap out of the Portuguese once, where it counts, in the country’s revolutionary war of 1974.)
People tried to make a big deal out of such games in earlier tournaments, too. Yes, Senegal’s victory over France in 2002 was important, but less because of the colonial relationship than because France were reigning World and European champions at the time and presaged their humiliating exit from the Tournament two weeks later. The US – Iran game at France 1998 was billed as some kind of grudge match for the hostage crisis of ’79, but that particular match was a snooze-fest (Iran 2 – 1 US, in case you’ve forgotten).
The only recent match that held any real political significance was England – Argentina in 1986, just four years after the Falklands War. But even here, that game’s lodging in the collective memory has nothing to do with political theatre and everything to do with what happened in the second half. Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, followed six minutes later by his astonishing dribble-past-five-defenders- (one-of-them-twice)-and the goalkeeper-goal which is, bar none, the best goal ever scored in the tournament. If the game had been as boring as, say, the 2002 England-Argentina match, no one would remember it, regardless of the “significance” of the outcome