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  • Writer's pictureJon Charoenkul

When Soccer and Global Politics Collide

On July 14, 1969, the Republic of El Salvador launched a military offensive against the neighboring Republic of Honduras. For the next 100 hours, the two Central American nations exchanged attacks, utilizing WWII-era weapons, ammunition and aircraft to assault the other while defending their own. At one point, the Salvadoran army threatened Honduras’ capital city. It was only after the attack lost momentum, and because of intervention by an international organization, that the short-lived battle ended.

Today, the conflict is known as the Football War.


The 1970 World Cup was on the horizon, and a month prior to the beginning of military operations, El Salvador and Honduras were set to face each other to determine which team would qualify. A series of 3 matches took place, each one after fans of opposing teams kept players awake overnight where they were staying.


Fans fought in the bleachers during the games, all of which were won by El Salvador. On the day of the third match, a 3-2 victory for El Salvador, the nation cut ties with Honduras, citing a hostile environment within the country for Salvadoran immigrants or those with their ancestry. The war began a month later.


In actuality, the war is better explained by political issues arising from land reform law enacted in Honduras, which targeted illegal immigrants from El Salvador. But whatever the real reason for the war, it was overshadowed by the qualifying matches as the ultimate casus belli, at least as it is remembered.


As an avid — though relatively new — soccer fan, the idea that the sport could serve as a platform to highlight global politics and social issues fascinated me. The World Cup especially, with its national teams and international presence, is perhaps the largest venue for such a demonstration. In 2022, this is no different. Of course it’s very unlikely that this year’s tournament will result in all-out war (although war did prevent a country — Russia — from participating). But that doesn’t mean that the ongoing matches have already become a platform for geopolitical commentary.


This year’s World Cup takes place in Qatar, a decision that has already proven controversial. World Cup host selection has seldom been without issue, but this year perhaps more than ever. For instance, the matches are being hosted in late fall rather than the usual summer, affecting the tournaments held by regional soccer organizations; also controversial is the ban on the sale of beer at stadiums.


Within just one week, match results have caused politically or culturally significant events within competing nations. A more lighthearted example came after the Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia match on Nov. 22, an upset victory favoring the latter nation, and one which prompted the Saudi government to declare a public holiday. On the other hand, Morocco’s 2-0 victory against Belgium on Nov. 27 led Moroccans living in Belgium to riot in celebration.


More concerning issues, though, lie in the humanitarian concerns with Qatar’s management of the tournament as well as within the country itself. Migrant workers who made up much of the labor in preparation for the ongoing games were reportedly mistreated, with more than six thousand workers from South Asian countries reported to have died.


Human rights itself is part of the discussion surrounding the host nation — most notably, the country’s policies and views towards those within the LGBTQ+ community. To acknowledge these concerns, seven European national teams had planned to wear OneLove armbands representing their support for anti-discrimination during matches. FIFA then announced that anyone wearing the armband would receive a yellow card, a type of sanction against an individual player.


Celebrities and pop culture figures — namely Dua Lipa, Shakira and Rod Stewart, among others — refused to participate in the opening ceremony because of these human rights concerns. David Beckham and Morgan Freeman did participate, and both were widely criticized for doing so.


Amid these worries, one of the biggest geopolitical issues that has taken center stage involves Iran. As the Mahsa Amini protests continue within the nation, the team representing the country has found itself in the middle of internal and geopolitical disputes.


Initially, Iranian protesters felt they needed to boycott the team, seeing it as representing the government. But in the opening match against England on Nov. 21, the team refused to sing the Iranian national anthem, an action that they decided not to repeat in their remaining two games. Pro-government and protesting Iranians continued to clash throughout the tournament, especially during the game against Wales on Nov. 25. Iranian players have had to make difficult choices about whether or not to represent their nation, government or the protesters, and to what extent.


On Nov. 29, Iran met with the USA in both teams’ final group stage match. Like the qualifying matches that influenced the start of the Football War, the game determined which team would move on to the next stage of the tournament and was hyped up as a culmination of the “cultural clash” that has served as a backdrop to this year’s World Cup.

This game alone has caused tensions between the two nations — notably, after the US Soccer Federation removed an Islamic symbol from the Iranian flag, an action that prompted Iranian state media to call for FIFA to ban the USA from competing. Moreover, CNN has reported concerning details about what consequences the Iranian teammates could face if they were to return home in defeat.


Ultimately, as Christian Pulisic scored for the USA at the 38th minute, Americans could taste victory. After a tense match, with an anxiety-ridden nine minutes of stoppage time added on to the end of the game, the USA ultimately moved on in a 1-0 victory, leaving Iran in the dust. Whatever comes next, it may certainly have geopolitical consequences, however mild or severe they can end up being in the world of soccer.


Finally, the significance of this World Cup is perhaps best summed up by an incident that occurred on Nov. 28, during the Portugal vs. Uruguay match. A protester ran onto the field during the game, holding a Pride flag and wearing a shirt with the phrases “Respect for Iranian Woman” and “Save Ukraine.” Just like that, almost all of the central geopolitical and social issues looming over this year’s World Cup were highlighted by one man, within one brief moment, presented to the world stage for all to see.


The World Cup is an event like no other. But as we watch the remainder of the matches, and see which country is victorious enough to win the Cup in 2022, let’s also not forget to be aware of what controversial developments led to this moment, and continue to be mindful about why the World Cup remains so globally significant. Because in international-level soccer, whether intended or not, geopolitical commentary has always been a major goal.

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