Want More Wars? Have More World Cups
Soccer is substitute warfare, but the game can also encourage conflict
The World Cup has come to Brazil, and with it a bunch of problems. Brazil spent billions on stadiums it doesn’t need, protesters crowd the streets, riot police crack skulls and FIFA hoovers up cash.
These events—we’re told by promoters—are about global unity. Healthy competition between countries brings the world together. The games are all in good fun. There’s drama. There’s winners and losers. There’s the feeling viewers are part of something bigger than themselves.
But there’s enough evidence to say the positive benefits of international sporting contests are largely bullshit.
As George Orwell remarked in his December 1945 Tribune essay on soccer and the Olympics: “Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”
This is because Orwell understood sports to be mock wars. These events are about beating the other team in violent competition. The World Cup and the Olympics are nationalist pain parades that inspire little and divide much. These games increase state aggression, lead to military build-up and publicize horrific tragedies.
Seriously. International sport is awful.
Sports begets violence
For one, there’s evidence that participation in international sports increases state aggression. This doesn’t simply mean wars, but also threats of military force and forms of combat short of war.
Andrew Bertoli—a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley—recently studied the military actions of 71 countries that barely qualified for several international soccer competitions, including the World Cup, from 1958 to 2010.
He compared these actions to those of 71 countries that failed to qualify—also just barely. Turns out, that’s a pretty close approximation of a randomized set of samples.
“Going to the World Cup increases aggression substantially,” Bertoli wrote in his recent paper. “The qualifiers not only took military action more often than the non-qualifiers, but the actions they took tended to be more violent.”
Bertoli also found that the effect is magnified in countries where soccer is popular. The effect increases under dictatorships, which use sporting events to rally popular support behind their regimes. This increase in aggression is also likely to occur within the World Cup year.
True, it’s impossible to say whether any individual sporting event leads to any particular conflict. The Russian invasion of Crimea happened shortly after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi—a showcase for Russian nationalism—but Russia may have invaded Crimea regardless of whether or not it hosted the games.
Yet there are more direct historical examples.
In the late 1960s, relations worsened between soccer-crazy El Salvador and Honduras. Salvadoran laborers migrated to Honduras for decades to work on farms. Hondurans felt they were being cheated out of jobs by an illegal immigrant labor force. In 1967 the Honduran government began rounding up Salvadorans and deporting them to El Salvador.
Then, in 1969, El Salvador beat Honduras in a qualifying match for the 1970 World Cup. As soon as the game was over—literally the same day—El Salvador severed diplomatic ties with Honduras. The Salvadoran government next accused Honduras of committing genocide against its Salvadoran migrant population.
A few days later El Salvador attacked Honduras with its air force, beginning what’s known as the “Football War.” Three thousand people died during four days of fighting, before the international community helped broker a cease fire.
An excuse to buy weapons
So states involved in international sports tend to be more aggressive towards their neighbors. But surely countries benefit within their own borders, right?
Perhaps. Bertoli suggests sports can help unify nations and make them more internally peaceful, although he cautions there’s no reliable data.
For example, South African rugby plausibly helped reconcile a country scarred by a racist Apartheid system. Another example could be Ivory Coast’s disciplined national soccer team, which arguably helped bring the country out of civil war with its qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
So, let’s say: sure. There’s nothing quite like that fuzzy feeling that comes from the collective joy of a crowd watching their team win—as long as you aren’t the country hosting games on a major scale. Let’s look at Brazil.
Brazilian security forces tasked with protecting the 2014 World Cup are wearing 22 pounds of armour. Their masks are designed on purpose to intimidate people. Brasília spent nearly a billion dollars on security for the World Cup—including Israeli drones, 34 German anti-aircraft tanks and 30 bomb disposal robots from the United States.
Sports may not bring nations together, but arms sales certainly do.
Many Brazilians are not happy about all the money their government is spending on a single month-long sporting event. This is a country where almost 12 million people live without running water or electricity. Brazilians are in the streets protesting the absurd spending.
A similar thing happened in the United Kingdom during the 2012 Olympic games. During the event, Britain deployed 13,500 soldiers to London. That’s more troops than Britain was fielding in Afghanistan at the time. The largest ship in Britain’s navy—the HMS Ocean—floated the Thames. The elite Royal Marines patrolled the city. The Ministry of Defense placed missile batteries on top of apartment buildings.
All for a sporting event that’s supposed to inspire peace and harmony.
It gets worse
In 2009, the soccer rivalry between Algeria and Egypt became so aggressive it caused several riots.
A fan gouged out the eye of the Egyptian’s team’s doctor during one such riot. Rioters looted Egyptian stores in Algiers. Gangs of angry fans set fire to cars. Member of the Algerian team wore bandages during one of the later games. They were still healing from wounds received while defending their coach from a mob.
When North Korea’s soccer team performed poorly in the 2010 World Cup, Kim Jong Un took it as a personal slight. The regime forced the team’s manager into a menial job as a construction worker. The government displayed the players on a stage before a crowd of people and publicly humiliated them for six hours. They got off easy.
Uday Hussein—the psychopathic son of Saddam—made life on the Iraqi international soccer team a living hell. Miss a penalty shot? Prison camp. Ref pulled a red card on you? Prison camp, forced shaving and beatings with electrical wire. Miss a practice? Jump into a pit of sewage.
Uday’s sadistic soccer management ended when U.S. troops killed him during the Iraq war.
Today, the military juntas in Egypt and Thailand are also using the World Cup to service anti-democratic ends. Thailand’s military rulers and the military dictatorship in Egypt are both making the World Cup easily available to the people. Anything to make up for the months of blood in the streets.
Despite all the babble of hope and community from organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, international sports are a horrorshow. Countries go to war, dictators abuse their people and states purchase more weapons, all in the name of goodwill.