Like many countries, the World Cup means more to China than just the soccer. For this rising power, it heralded in a new capacity of headspace not involving political propaganda. One can argue it introduced agendas of another sort, but the fact remains that other ideas and ideals were able to creep into the Chinese mind. Whilst the Chinese have always found sport as a useful way to discipline their nation, soccer/or football to be more accurate, has proven over the years to have a peculiar nature of liberation. With football, there was never simply quiet and undermined appreciation. At the football, celebrations were always earth shattering and uninhibited.
‘For the first time since the revolution (of 1949), the Chinese nation, exhausted by the Communist Party’s incessant political campaigns, realised that the world could be excited by something other than Marxism and class struggle,‘ wrote Beijing-based observer Daniel Bell, citing historian Yu Maochun.
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World Cup’s spell on war and peace
The most-watched sporting event has influenced events beyond the pitch
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
Source – Straits Times, published June 27, 2010
Beijing: Most people know 1978 to be the year that China opened its door to landmark economic reforms that brought momentous change to the world’s most populous country.
What they may not know is that it was also the year China allowed, for the first time, live broadcasts of World Cup matches, bringing excitement to hundreds of thousands of Chinese.
Those screenings in June 1978, say analysts, were a turning point in the political history of China.
‘For the first time since the revolution (of 1949), the Chinese nation, exhausted by the Communist Party’s incessant political campaigns, realised that the world could be excited by something other than Marxism and class struggle,’ wrote Beijing-based observer Daniel Bell, citing historian Yu Maochun.
The World Cup is more than just football. For the past 80 years, the most-watched sporting tournament has influenced events beyond the pitch, shaping politics, ending wars and even repairing the souls of divided nations.
As U2 rock star Bono said in an ESPN advertisement in 2006 to get Americans excited about the event, the World Cup ‘closes the schools, closes the shops, closes a city and stops a war’.
His lyrical summation may be a tad dramatic, but it is not entirely hyperbole.
Such is the nationalistic allure of the World Cup that factions in the Ivory Coast’s civil war put aside their weapons to pick up TV remote controls to support their country’s debut in the 2006 tournament.
The team, led by captain Didier Drogba, pleaded: ‘Let us come together and put this war behind us.’ Their appeal led to a truce being called and peace talks restarted.
But even for countries that did not make it to the World Cup, the beauty of the game, the artistry on display, were reasons enough to give peace a chance.
War-torn Lebanon enjoyed a reprieve once every four years during its 15-year civil war from 1975, with militiamen silencing their guns to enjoy the jamboree.
Yet, it is not all peace and love every time the World Cup comes around.
Anthropologist Richard Sipes argues that combative sports, like football, are more likely to abet conflict than reduce it.
Neighbours El Salvador and Honduras – the latter now in South Africa making its second World Cup appearance – proved him right when they broke diplomatic ties and traded fire after a series of violent World Cup qualifiers in 1969.
The 100-hour ‘Football War’ left 2,000 people dead, although to be fair to the beautiful game, tensions between the two countries were already high because of immigration and border disputes.
‘They abused football. They took advantage of us,’ one surviving player complained about the politicians of the day.
Other politicians have tried to take advantage of the World Cup, albeit through less violent means.
Benito Mussolini turned the second-ever World Cup, held in Italy in 1934, into a massive propaganda pageant for his fascist government. Adolf Hitler did the same with the Berlin Olympics two years later.
Argentina’s military junta was accused of using the 1978 World Cup held on its soil as a smokescreen to partly cover up its elimination of dissidents.
No politician, however, has tried and failed as miserably as former British prime minister Harold Wilson in trying to harness World Cup victories into political gains.
The Labour Party leader may very well be the only world leader to have been booted out of office as a result of his efforts, after defending champions England suffered a shock 2-3 defeat by West Germany in 1970.
The late Lord Wilson is believed to have called a general election during the tournament in the hope that a strong English performance would give Labour an electoral boost.
The memoirs of his defence minister Denis Healey reveal that the prime minister had asked a few Cabinet leaders two months earlier to discuss the possible impact of the World Cup on the election results.
The stunning loss – England had been leading 2-0 – punctured the feel-good factor, and four days later, Labour was defeated by the Conservatives at the polls, amid the lowest turnout in 35 years.
To be sure, other factors also played a part. But in former sports minister Denis Howell’s mind, there was no doubt regarding the correlation between the World Cup and the election result.
He wrote in his memoirs: ‘The moment (English) goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday.’
Indeed, such is the intensity of a World Cup match that a single act, be it a clumsy miss or a stupendous goal, is often analysed for its national ramifications long after the players have trooped off the field.
Argentina’s 1986 victory over England, in particular Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal, was widely seen as the South Americans’ payback for the Falklands War four years earlier.
Said Maradona: ‘Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there… and this was revenge.’
Analysts also argued that the Netherlands never really recovered from its hatred for Germany from World War II until its star midfielder Frank Rijkaard spat into German Rudi Voller’s hair during a 1990 World Cup match.
For the Germans, the scars from that war were healed when they won the 1990 World Cup, helping the divided nation reunite after 45 years.
Former enemies Iran and the United States squared off against each other in the 1998 World Cup and found rapprochement of sorts when the Iranian players offered white flowers to the Americans as a symbol of peace.
After Iran won 2-1, people danced in the streets of Teheran, drinking alcohol openly, and the women took off their headscarves. Those scenes were emblematic of the Islamic republic’s new atmosphere of political hope, with then newly elected reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
But it did not last. Today, Iran remains locked in political turmoil and international sanctions.
One hopes that South Africa, which believes hosting the tournament will help heal the wounds of apartheid and boost development, will have better luck and a more sustainable political legacy with the World Cup.