More than a game

by Neil Stormer
20 June 2006
Washington, D.C. – “Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude, it is much, much more important than that!”

With those words, former Liverpool football coach Bill Shankly inadvertently alluded to a new reality: football is not just a game, but is also an economic force, a model of globalisation and, more importantly, a vehicle for conflict resolution.

Two days ago, in the pages of this paper, Pascal Boniface discussed the relationship between football and geopolitics. In the context of his article, Boniface jokingly stated that football fans believe that FIFA should be given a Nobel Peace Prize. While concerted, pro-active efforts need to be made before the noblest of Nobel Prizes is conferred upon football’s governing body, it is true that football and sports in general can play and have played a role in limiting the reaches of war and de-escalating violent situations.

There are numerous examples from the 20th and 21st centuries showing just how large a role football and sports have played in mitigating conflict. Consider the Christmas Truce during World War I; caked in mud and nearly frozen, Germans and Brits climbed out of their respective trenches along the front, set aside their guns and mutual animosities and celebrated Christmas by playing football. The truce didn’t last, the war continued, but soldiers on both sides found themselves unable to fire out of their trenches — to fire across their erstwhile football pitch — at their enemies. A large amount of wasted ammunition was recorded on the following days as guns were trained at the stars above and not at the enemy.

In 1967, Pele travelled to Lagos, Nigeria, then in the midst of a brutal civil war, to play an exhibition match. In order to allow both sides of the conflict to see the greatest ever play the game, a 48-hour ceasefire was called and honoured. A single footballer stopped a war.

World Cup qualification can do it too. Cote d’Ivoire is in the middle of a civil war. After the country’s qualification for the World Cup, President Laurent Gbagbo acquiesced to the pleas of the Ivorian football federation and restarted peace talks. The country now enjoys a tense ceasefire, thanks solely to the team’s trip to Germany. The peace may not survive much longer than the World Cup, but any cessation in fighting is a reason to celebrate.

Football can be a force for violence however. There is a tendency towards nationalism and racism, and the 1980s witnessed the rise of football-related gangs notorious for criminal behaviour and drunken brawling. The game has also “started” a war: a riot erupted at a series of games between Honduras and El Salvador, and the ensuing diplomatic collapse resulted in the 100-day Soccer War.

But the violence is the exception, not the norm. Sports have long served as a means of bridging gaps through peaceful exchanges and act as a diplomatic tool. While rivalries are occasionally inflamed through athletic contests, sports exchanges are seen as a safe icebreaker.

The real sports-related conflict resolution success to be had though is not through the temporary unity achieved during international tournaments or the diplomatic thaw following a friendly football match. While a successful national team’s efforts can bring warring sides together for the duration of the World Cup, the way to leverage football and all sports in the name of conflict resolution is through consistent, grassroots efforts to enlist the masses in peaceful interaction.

An increasing number of organisations take advantage of this form of peace building. Football 4 Peace is one such organisation. Since 2001, F4P has been bringing Muslim and Jewish youth together to foster understanding and to overcome differences through sport. The Peres Centre for Peace has used football in a variety of ways to foster peace between Israel and Palestine, from a mixed Israeli-Palestinian exhibition team to camps and tournaments for children from both side of the divide.

Acknowledging the role sports can play in building peace, among other things, the UN General Assembly, passed Resolution 58/5, proclaiming 2005 to be the International Year for Sport and Physical Education. The goal was to use sports “as a means to promote education, health, development and peace”.

Organisations that promote understanding through sports see in them an unrivalled ability to overcome cultural, political and religious differences while promoting unity and understanding.

While the temporary ceasefire in Nigeria during Pele’s visit and Ivory Coast’s World Cup-inspired peace are not to be overlooked, these examples are only part of the bigger picture. The path to peace should be paved not just with the one-off event and top-down, tournament-inspired ceasefires, but also with long-term efforts of those who try to build from the ground up.

The premise behind the practice is simple: just as the World War I-era British and Germans who entered into a wartime Christmas football match would not readily fire upon each other, those who play together find it difficult to remain foes.

No one seriously contends that football is more important than life or death, but if applied to more serious pursuits, it can mean the difference between war and peace.

* Neil Stormer works in conflict resolution and foreign policy in Washington, D.C. This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Jordan Times, June 14, 2006

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