Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Tribal Minds, Part 1
Orwell was, of course, somewhat irrationally ill-disposed to organized sport, perhaps (an armchair psychiatrist might say) because of his joyless experiences at a typically sport-obsessed British preparatory school.
His view on the Dinamo tour, which is now spoken of in quite reverent terms by football historians, was that it caused only ill-will between England and Russia, and reinforced the nationalist feelings which, according to Orwell, are always tied up with international sport.
A few phrases from the essay are worth quoting, partly as a striking counterpoint to the various platitudes regularly uttered by FIFA worthies about sport as a force for international understanding. To wit:
“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”
“If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Yugoslavs…”
Although the history of international football is littered with examples of violence attending rivalry at international level (the “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 being the nastiest example), I think it’s fair to say that Orwell has, by and large, been proven wrong.
Although never free from controversy, the World Cup rarely inflames nationalistic passions to an unmanageable extent, and does a great deal to promote easy and playful interaction among the fans. In Stuttgart, during this year’s World Cup, I was genuinely touched by the evident goodwill between the Australian and Croatian fans even after the dramatic group decider. Elsewhere, I saw Dutch fans partying together with Argentina supporters before their first-round match in Frankfurt, and a contingent of Japanese fans trying out their limited English on some willing Australians in the train to Kaiserslautern.
But the World Cup was not always like this; the early editions of the tournament were beset by “incidents”, not to mention insidious political influences at play throughout (particularly in 1934, when the tournament was held in fascist Italy). What happened to change this?
There are a variety of reasons, of course, but in the next instalment I’d like to offer a partial theory of sorts, centering around the 1958 tournament in Sweden, which I consider a real turning point in the competition’s history.