When we hear the phrase ‘International Relations’ we often imagine men in suits at diplomatic discussions negotiating trade deals or the normalization of relations between countries who share a turbulent history, as was seen last week as Bahrain announced it will normalize relations with Israel; following on from the UAE. However, we must look past diplomatic statements to truly see how countries feel about their neighbours; whom they often share a troubled past with. The world of sport offers us a comprehensive view of relations between nations in many different aspects; how sport can lead to the easing of tensions between countries and how bitter rivalries on the pitch are caused by ideological differences in governments.
Throughout history, international sporting events like the Olympics gave countries with strained relations an opportunity for one to get the upper hand on the other. This was eternally evident in the Olympic games that took place during the Cold-War era and the intense rivalry between the USSR and the U.S.A across many different sports in the games, namely ice-hockey, gymnastics and basketball. When the Soviet Union made its Olympic debut at the 1952 Helsinki games, the American media and athletes saw the USSR as their main competition and the one nation they desired to beat the most. Arthur Daley, a sports columnist wrote in the New York Times- ‘The communist propaganda machine must be silenced so that there can’t be even one distorted bleat out of it in regard to the Olympics.’(see here) clearly displaying the deep hatred toward communist Russia that was felt across America. This was a sporting rivalry that spanned decades and many Olympic games, with each country adamant to display their superiority in sport, which swayed public opinion regarding who they saw as the most powerful nation in the world.
While the Olympics are often laden with political drama, IR enthusiasts ought to look to FIFA World Cup Qualifiers to grasp modern-day relations between countries, particularly for the nations in UEFA. At the draw for the 2008 European Championship enemies Armenia and Azerbaijan were drawn into the same group, a geopolitical headache waiting to happen, due to on-going conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The hotly contested Nagorno-Karabakh region; which is formally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is controlled by the self-declared Republic of Artsakh- who seeks reunification with Armenia, has led to war, mass migration of people, and the death of civilians and army personnel on both sides, with the countries respective armies still facing off in the region to this day. Following the draw for the 2008 qualifiers, it was reported the Azeri team refused to play an Armenian team in Azerbaijan and offered to play at a neutral venue, which Armenia would not accept- according to WorldSoccer.com . This resulted in neither team playing each other and forfeited any possible points, indicating to us that politics and border issues can be intrinsic to international sport.
Following the drama and headache for UEFA after the Azerbaijan/Armenia draw, it was decided that UEFA would intervene at future draws and created a rule stating that Azerbaijan or Armenia cannot be drawn into the same group so that all tournaments can be played peacefully. This rule of prohibited matches if there is political tension or historical tension between countries has become common following the 2008 draw, particularly for ex-Yugoslav countries. With the disputed region of Kosovo who battled a bloody war against Serbia, entering the qualification tournament for the 2020 European Championships, UEFA stated that Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia could not draw Kosovo in their groups due to concerns about the safety of players and supporters. If they were to be drawn into the same group Kosovo would be moved to a different group. On the other side, before Kosovo’s admission into UEFA in 2015, the contentious issue of Kosovo’s status did lead to the abandonment of a 2014 soccer match.
With Kosovo having an Albanian ethnic majority, many of whom seek reunification with Albania, it is no surprise that a football match between Albania and Serbia ended in disaster. It is important to note that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and simply sees it as a province of Serbia, which has created enormous tension and hostile relations with their Albanian neighbours. During the 2014 soccer match between the nations, an image depicting Kosovo being part of Greater Albania with portraits of Albanian nationalist leaders was flown over the pitch in Belgrade. Serbian defender Stefan Mitrović pulled the image down, but the massive brawl between fans, supporters, and stewards then began; reminiscent of that infamous Ireland v England friendly in 1995. The match was later abandoned by the match referee, citing security concerns for the players on both teams. While this incident didn’t help improve relations between the countries, they were likely made worse with fingers being pointed at the Albanian Prime Minister’s brother as the person behind the stunt, further complicating relations one would imagine. This event vividly highlights how a sporting match can have serious political consequences for countries, with UEFA sanctions applied to both FAs and a further dent in relations between two noisy neighbours.
Conversely, sport is also the catalyst for positive relationship building between nations. During the height of the cold war, America was invited by Chairman Mao to face off against the Chinese team in a ping-pong tournament in China, an unexpected move. What ensued after this ping-pong encounter was a softening of tensions between the US and China, but could now be interpreted as the first signal that the Cold War would not last. This sporting anomaly has been coined as ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ as shortly after the ping-pong was played, President Nixon made a historic week-long state visit to China, which we now examine and view it as a vital moment regarding the initial building of Chinese-US relations. If sport could pave the way for the de-escalation of tension and hostility between rivals during the Cold War, it undeniably displays the political influence that sports and athletes had and still do have in our polarised world.
With many calling for a separation of sport and politics in our modern society, we simply cannot ignore that sport and politics are intrinsically related, and can offer countries a much needed opportunity to heal the past and move forward in unison. On the other hand, sport also gives us an insight into sour relations that we may not have realised existed. Sport can sadly be exploited to spread one country’s idealogoy and used to provoke the enemy, which is a common occurence in the stands and by outsiders interfering with matches. As relations between certain countries decline, we must keep our eyes on international sport to assess where our global family of nations are heading.