Soccer and Politics

By Biddle Duke

“The wonderful thing about football,” the actor and satirist John Cleese says in a two-minute monologue on YouTube, “is how creative it is. And this is why it never caught on in America.”

By football, he means the game played with your feet and with a ball. In our parlance, soccer.

“You see,” he continues, referring to American football, “in America the action is deliberately kept short so that the sponsors can get in as many commercials as possible.”

Cleese’s political jab — that our football, like America itself, is obsessed with money and business — is nothing new. Politics and soccer go hand in hand. I reckon that’s one reason why the sport is less popular in America than in the rest of the world.

Everywhere else, soccer is a matter of life and death. Or more. No sport elicits more worldwide tension, more joy, more crazy riots, more national periods of mourning and pride than soccer. It’s all on display for a month every four years in the FIFA World Cup. And, in case you’ve been lost on the L.I.E.: It’s happening right now in Brazil.

National stereotypes are on display. Historic and current foes go head to head. Old colonial powers take on their former colonies. Always with the backdrop of historic tensions, perceived wrongs and rights.

Some of the prickliest moments in World Cup lore: Dark, crazy, militaristic North Korea stepped around its south-pointing missiles and played democratic South Korea to a draw in 2010; Iran versus the United States (a k a the Axis of Evil versus the Great Satan) in 1998 in France (Iran won); cleaved in half in the Cold War, Germany came together in an East versus West World Cup game in 1974 (and, in a classic political metaphor, East Germany won the match, but West Germany went on to win the whole shebang).

Argentina’s run in soccer is among the most politically charged. In a brief bloody conflict Argentina’s military was slapped away by the British in 1982 from their occupation of the Falklands (known as the Malvinas by the Argentines). Then, later that year as the Argentines emerged from the darkness of their “Dirty War” dictatorship their soccer team was humbled and summarily dismissed early on from the World Cup in Spain. It seemed appropriate.

Four years later the nightmare of the dictatorship seemed to fade at last on a sun-splashed afternoon in the mile-high Azteca stadium in Mexico City. It was the World Cup quarterfinals against the English, and Diego Maradona and his squad took their revenge.

Gifted and opportunistic, Maradona scored first with his controversial “Hand of God” goal. He followed that with another touch of magic, dribbling past five English players to knock in another. The second goal was voted the best goal of the century by FIFA, but both are legend.

Soccer, like life, is imperfect and messy. Sometimes you get ahead because the ref isn’t looking. Maradona knew he’d gotten away with what amounts to soccer murder. A kid who’d grown up in the slums, he likened his hand goal to the delight of robbing the British in broad daylight.

“I sometimes think I preferred the one with my hand. . . . It was a bit like stealing the wallet of the English,” Maradona said in his autobiography. “It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team. . . . 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, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

There are no such huge political moments this time around, although political undertones are everywhere. The Africans surged (Algeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria), great European powers stumbled out of the tournament (Spain, Italy, Portugal, England), there is uncanny strength by the Americas (half the final 16 were from the Americas), and there is the ever-optimistic, scrappy United States, which was voted the team “you are most rooting against” in a New York Times poll in 19 nations. Australia, Mexico, Italy, Russia, and the U.S. itself named the U.S.A. as least popular, the poll said. Australia and Italy? Huh? The American vote was probably just an anti-soccer vote. The rest? Politics.

Which is why we root for the home team, why we rooted against the damn Russians and relish that Italy and Australia were sent packing. But we didn’t hold it against the Mexicans. Mexico should have gone all the way. Sure, they say they want us to lose in soccer, but they also know we’re joined at the hip forever.

Biddle Duke is the publisher of weekly newspapers in Vermont. He married into an East Hampton family and finds his way to the South Fork beaches when the surf is up.