After years of waiting and anticipation, today — the opening day of the World Cup — is like Christmas morning for soccer fans. The world’s most-watched sporting event, the World Cup attracted more than 3 billion viewers in 2014, and it is sure to draw at least as many this year. It is also sure to draw controversy. The games will be hosted by Russia, a country that foments war, interferes in the elections of sovereign nations, discriminates against members of the LGBTQ community and assassinates its own citizens abroad. Earlier this year, the British government announced a political boycott of the World Cup to protest the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
But this is hardly the first time that soccer has intersected with international politics. Most famously, in 1969, a Soccer War broke out between El Salvador and Honduras. Several years later, in one of the most storied soccer matches in European history, a 1982 World Cup semifinal match between France and West Germany created such animosity that politicians felt compelled to intervene — an example of just how long international reconciliation can take, even on the playing field.
The first World Cup match to end in penalty shots, the Franco-West German faceoff in Seville became better known for a notoriously violent play. On a breakaway, French player Patrick Battiston collided head-on with German goalie Toni Schumacher when Schumacher charged him directly, leaving Battiston unconscious and with missing teeth, cracked ribs and damaged vertebrae. Outraged by the German goalie’s aggressive maneuver and lack of contrition, the French public expressed such anti-German hostility that West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt publicly apologized to French President François Mitterrand. The two leaders subsequently issued a joint statement in an effort to calm the storm.
But while West Germany apologized, it was not lost on Germans that the French characterized them as “les boches” — a pejorative term for German soldiers in World War I — and Nazis, who conquered France in World War II. West Germans were shocked to discover that resentments they believed had faded since the wars could be so quickly revived by a soccer match. Almost 40 years of reconciliation efforts, ranging from diplomatic agreements to economic integration, youth exchanges and partner cities, seemed for naught.
The animosity forced French and West German diplomats to confront the fragility of their postwar alliance — what the French foreign ministry described as an “amitié imparfaite,” or imperfect friendship. Since 1982, the “Tragedy of Seville” or “Seville 82” has been memorialized in documentaries, theater pieces, novels, dance performances and music. Its impact transcended sport, in part because soccer claims such a significant place in modern French and German history.
For Germans, the West German victory at the 1954 World Cup marked a turning point that allowed for the reclaiming of national pride after the catastrophic defeat of World War II. By contrast, a West German loss to East Germany in 1974 represented a grievous blow in the Cold War context. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s World Cup triumph symbolized the unification of the two German states. Sixteen years later, the Germans hosted the World Cup in a “summer fairy tale” that saw the emergence of a benign German nationalism. When Germany won the World Cup in 2014, Angela Merkel’s appearance in the locker room represented a high point of her chancellorship.
French soccer has an equally rich, if more controversial history. The French World Cup victory in 1998 was widely celebrated as a symbol of France’s successful integration of immigrant youth, a process that remains painfully incomplete despite the 2018 French national team’s diversity. In 2010, the French World Cup team drew upon centuries of revolutionary tradition to engage in an unprecedented strike against management. When an international star on the Parisian team was perceived to have insulted France in 2015, he received an official rebuke from no less than the country’s prime minister.
Recent events remind us that the Franco-German relationship anchors the European Union, largely because Franco-German hostilities contributed to a century of unprecedented warfare in global history. The state of those relations plays out economically, politically, militarily and culturally, including in sport.
The impact of “Seville 82” on this crucial relationship illustrates how sports offer a valuable window into society.
This is especially true for soccer because its fandom spans class, religious, racial, regional and gender divides. As Europe’s indisputably dominant sport, soccer sheds light on numerous aspects of European life, ranging from business corruption and globalization to violence and crowd psychology. The secondary status of women’s teams reflects the continued misogyny in European society, while prejudices against players of color demonstrate the unresolved legacies of racism and empire. If soccer has replaced religion for millions of Europeans in a secularized age, national passions remain powerful, testifying to the incomplete project of European unity.
But soccer can make political waves beyond Europe as well. Today, the first match of the World Cup in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium will feature Russia squaring off against Saudi Arabia. Considering the quality (or lack thereof) of their teams, the World Cup’s debut may be more interesting politically than on the soccer pitch.
Oil-rich powers supporting opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, Russia and Saudi Arabia recently forged a petroleum-production agreement that underscores growing Russian influence in the Middle East. Victory for the Russians, ranked second to last among the World Cup’s 32 teams, would vindicate a squad linked to doping and hooliganism and represent yet another Saudi nod to Russian dominance. Even if Saudi Arabia were to triumph, the very act of hosting the World Cup, despite Russia’s military aggression, political authoritarianism and a widely reported corrupt bidding process, represents an international propaganda coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is perhaps fitting that these two teams kick off a World Cup without the United States — the U.S. team failed to qualify — given the Trump administration’s retreat from global diplomacy, especially in the Middle East. This provides yet another reminder of how sports can mirror international politics and even shape them.