The first of my three-part series on the 2010 World Cup for South Africa’s Sunday Times:
‘Just don’t mention the war” was the cardinal rule when hosting German guests at Fawlty Towers, the eponymous hotel in the ’70s British TV sitcom. But it has never applied to England football fans: whenever their team plays Germany, they taunt the opposition with a ditty (to the tune of The Camptown Races) with the lyrics: Two world wars and one world cup, dooh-dah, dooh-dah …
The English are hardly alone in linking football and war. When Holland beat Germany in a Euro ’88 semifinal, literally 60% of the Dutch population took to the streets to celebrate, many of them chanting “Hurrah, we got our bikes back!” That was a far larger crowd than the one which celebrated Holland’s victory over the Soviet Union in the final of the same tournament days later, but the bicycle reference said it all: Dutch people had had their bikes confiscated when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands 48 years earlier. Those who fell/rose cheering from their graves, wrote Dutch poet Jules Deelder, while a veteran of the underground resistance enthused: “It feels as though we’ve won the war at last.”
Payback for wartime humiliation was also the Argentine narrative for Diego Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England at the 1986 World Cup (and the “goal of the century” he added later in the game). Sure, Maradona used his fist to prod the ball over Peter Shilton for the opening goal, but for a country still smarting from the wounds of the Falklands/Malvinas War four years earlier, England had to be beaten by any means necessary. As Maradona said afterwards: “We knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys (in the Malvinas), killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” Sure, Maradona had cheated, but so had the British, in Argentine minds, by sinking an Argentine warship outside the zone of exclusion around the islands, killing some 323 sailors. Jorge Valdano, who was on the field that day, knew Maradona had cheated, but said “at that moment we only felt joy, relief, perhaps a forced sense of justice. It was England, let’s not forget, and the Malvinas were fresh in the memory.”
El gol de ciclo
In international football, you don’t just talk about the war; you re-enact it – at least in a safer form. It’s not always safe, of course: the 1969 “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras broke out when long-standing border tensions boiled over following an ill-tempered qualifying match for the 1970 World Cup. And the event deemed to have signalled the onset of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s was an ugly brawl involving fans and players that broke out at a match between Dinamo Zagreb – deemed the Croatian “national” team – and Red Star Belgrade, whose “ultra” fans later went on to become the nucleus of the Serb Tiger militia – notorious for its war crimes.
Even in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, there were a couple of dodgy moments although, mercifully, none lit a spark. The showdown between Egypt and Algeria produced a week of rioting, sabre rattling and the withdrawal of ambassadors, while Fifa officials kept a nervous eye on matches between the two Koreas and between Turkey and Armenia.
Although he wasn’t even writing about football, the legendary Trinidadian historian CLR James nonetheless offered the key to understanding its international dimension when he famously asked: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The game, James wrote, could only be properly understood in the context of the political and cultural conflicts of the British Empire.
He recognised sport as a ritualised combat, channelling nationalist passions and reinforcing national mythologies. And it’s not hard to guess what James would have made of the spectacle of Trinidad and Tobago being dismissed from the 2006 World Cup through Peter Crouch hoisting himself to head in England’s breakthrough goal by pulling on the dreadlocks of defender Brett Sancho….