When you flip on World Cup games this month, you’ll probably hear more than a few feel-good buzzwords on international cooperation. Every four years, the World Cup is hailed by various journalists and promotion managers as a great global unifier.
The optimism is ubiquitous. The World Cup’s official song is titled “We are one.” It’s official slogan? “All in one rhythm.” At this year’s event, FIFA—the beleaguered organization behind the World Cup—has even teamed up with the Nobel Peace Center to introduce the Handshake for Peace, a symbolic palm clasp players will do before and after every match. The goal, according to officials, is to “inspire the world to unite in peace, solidarity, and fair play.”
Some analysts even posit that the World Cup could end wars. Mathew Brown predicted in the Financial Times that if Colombia won the gold in Brazil, a peace agreement ending its civil war would be signed in two weeks. A month of soccer matches, fourteen days of negotiations, and a brutal five-decade conflict extinguished! Perhaps FIFA could teach the US and G20 its ways?
Of course, this is nonsense. International sporting competitions do not foster goodwill. They generate the very opposite, fueling age-old ethnic and national hatred among people and reinforcing division, segregation, and demonization of others. Violence is a natural outgrowth of sporting matches—particularly international ones—and is exacerbated by existing political conflict. Eric Dunning and other sociologists have shown how the centrality of reputation, solidarity, and sovereignty—the same things so fundamental to warfare—fuel the enmities found in soccer hooliganism.
When old enemies meet on the pitch or the hardwood or the ice, it’s war without guns. When a country loses a match to a rival, people go crazy. They riot in the streets and burn flags and buildings. Their feelings—of national humiliation if they lose and nationalist superiority if they win—are whipped into furies in ways that would make the most charismatic of demagogues envious.
After their 2002 World Cup loss to Japan, Russians in Moscow went on a rampage and two people were left dead. The authorities then wisely banned the screening of games on large screens outdoors. In 2006, violent clashes broke out in Germany after Poland lost to Germany in a match replete with war-time symbolism. When Ireland and England squared off in a “friendly” soccer game in 1995, the event began with fans jeering the other side’s national anthem and ended 27 minutes later with a nationalist riot instigated by a neo-Nazi group. The ‘English Disease’ of soccer hooliganism even has its own variant in France, where the media and some legislators castigated the national team in 2010 for lacking patriotism—biting racist commentary directed at a team made up of so many brown and black players.
None of this is specific to the World Cup either. Canadians in Vancouver destroyed over a million dollars of property when their hockey team lost in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final. The India-Pakistan cricket rivalry—perhaps the fiercest in the world—has sparked communal violence and killing in South Asia in the past. A neutral observer at a match might think he was in a simulated war zone. (The infamous 1999 match between the two actually took place in the context of a war preceded by the testing of nuclear missiles.)
Both war and sport draw from the same well of group hatred, which is why international sporting events sometimes result in violence. Notice how quickly name-calling and stereotyping come rushing out like caged bulls at events like the World Cup. The competition, the flags, the desire to defeat and demean an imagined enemy, all of this is analogous to warfare, which is why there are heavily armed soldiers, riot police, and pain-inducing gasses of various sorts.
In one sense though, the specter of it all is a reminder of just how far we have to go before we move beyond tribal hostilities. The World Cup inspires a lot of emotion, but the only sense in which it “brings people together” is by giving them another reason to yell that their country is better than yours and that your country deserves to be defeated by theirs.