Long Before 'Putin's World Cup,' Here Are 10 Times Soccer Matches Became Political Footballs

As the World Cup opens in Russia under a pall of criticism, here are other examples of soccer getting roped into political conflicts, for good or bad

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering a speech before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, June 14, 2018.
Alexei Druzhinin/AP

Fans say soccer can unite people and help bridge national, religious and ethnic divides. And it does. Sometimes. But over the last century or so, soccer matches have also helped stoke political tensions, riots and at least one full-out war.

The World Cup that opened Thursday in Russia has been a lightning rod for criticism, ranging from accusations of corruption linked to the selection process of the host country to claims that the event will be used as a PR tool by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here are some other instances in history when, for good or bad, the “Beautiful Game” got entangled with ugly politics.

When soccer turns political

1. The Football War

El Salvador and Honduras fought a four-day war in July 1969 amid rising tensions that spilled out during two World Cup qualifier matches the preceding month. The real root of the war was land reform in Honduras, which forced El Salvadorian migrants off the lands they were working and created a political crisis between the two Central American countries. El Salvador cut off diplomatic ties following the mass expulsion of its nationals on the day of a playoff match and invaded Honduras on July 14. The war ended after a cease-fire was brokered on July 18. El Salvador advanced to the 1970 World Cup, where it lost all three of its games.

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2. The Soccer Gulf

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have used soccer as a diplomatic weapon alongside their blockade of neighboring Qatar. The countries withdrew from the 2017 Gulf Cup, which was to be held in Qatar, leading the tournament to be moved to Kuwait.

The UAE also canceled a friendly game with Morocco last September, trying to pressure it to back its position over the Qatar crisis.

3. The Death Match

The Nazi occupiers in Ukraine tried to create normalcy by allowing soccer clubs to form. One such club, Start – made up of former professional players doing forced labor at a bakery – beat Flakelf, a team of handpicked German players, on August 9, 1942. Start rallied to win 5-3, even though the Nazis used brutal tactics and allegedly threatened to kill the Ukrainians if they prevailed.

Historians are unsure whether the threat was real, but some players did die within a few months of the game. The events were dramatized in the Hollywood movie “Victory,” which substituted the Ukrainians with Western POWs, played by stars including Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Brazilian soccer legend Pelé.

4. Port Said Stadium Riot

Following the revolution that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, more than 70 people were killed when fans rioted after a match between rival teams Al-Masry of Port Said and Al-Ahly of Cairo in February 2012. After their team won 3-1, Al-Masry hooligans stormed the pitch and attacked Al-Ahly fans, resulting in a massacre that highlighted the inability of the transitional government to restore order and the growing role of “ultras” in post-revolutionary street violence.

5. Islamic Republic vs. Great Satan

Iran was pitted against Team USA at the 1998 World Cup. Tensions began with the pregame handshake, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisting the American players must walk over to the Iranians. The captains exchanged gifts to calm nerves, but Iran upset USA 2-1 with a late winning goal, knocking the Americans out of the tournament and stirring celebrations in Tehran. The win prompted Khamenei to say: “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands.”

Soldiers taking part in an impromptu soccer match during a truce in World War I.
Wikimedia Commons

6. WWI Christmas Truce

When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, few believed it would still be raging in December. When Christmas Day came around, German and Allied soldiers reportedly made their own truces on the front lines, fraternizing in no-man’s-land. In an article that appeared in The Times of London on January 1, 1915, a doctor from the British rifle brigade reported “a football match played between them and us in the front of the trench.” The Germans claimed they won the match 3-2.

Celtic fans at the playoff match against Hapoel Be'er Sheva.
Russell Cheyne / Reuters

7. BDS Comes to FIFA

The Palestinian Authority launched a campaign in 2015 to get Israel kicked out of soccer governing body FIFA, citing restrictions on the movement of Palestinian players and saying teams based in the settlements should not be allowed to play in Israeli leagues. Israel escaped suspension by making concessions, including allowing a team from Gaza to travel to the West Bank – for the first time since 2000.

8. Argentina’s Revenge

Argentina won the 1978 World Cup as host. Despite some calls in the West for a boycott, everyone participated in the tournament, giving a propaganda boost to the military junta that brutally ruled the country. There were allegations of match-fixing by the junta to help their team win, while local groundskeepers tried to preserve the memory of the “disappeared” victims of the regime by painting the bottom of the goalposts black. Argentina’s political fortunes also featured heavily in its 1986 victory in the World Cup quarterfinals against England, which came four years after the country’s humiliating defeat to the United Kingdom in the Falkland War. “This was our revenge, it was ... recovering a part of the Malvinas,” Maradona later wrote in his autobiography, using the Spanish name for the islands. 

9. The miracle of Bern

West Germany’s 1954 World Cup triumph in Switzerland – known as the Miracle of Bern – was a healing moment for Germans as they finally returned to the international stage in a positive light. West Germany, decimated by World War II, came in as underdogs. In the group stage, the team lost 8-3 to Hungary. Two weeks later, it faced Hungary again in the final and quickly found itself down 2-0 after 10 minutes, but rallied to win 3-2. Hungarians demonstrated in Budapest after the national team’s capitulation, with the players forced to lay low for several days in a small town before finally returning to the capital. Legendary German defender Franz Beckenbauer later described the events of Bern as when “the entire country regained its self-esteem.”

Brazil's Pele is hoisted on shoulders of his teammates after Brazil won the World Cup final against Italy, 4-1, in 1970.
AP

10. The legend of Pelé

After a coup in Nigeria, tens of thousands of ethnic Igbos were killed in pogroms and over a million fled east. Igbo leaders responded by declaring the independent state of Biafra. Civil war ensued in July 1967. Legend has it that when Pelé came with his team, Santos, for a friendly in Nigeria, there was a two-day cease-fire, although there are no contemporary accounts of such a development. Pelé commented in 2007 that the story may not be true, but with a heavy military presence in the streets of Lagos, the Nigerian military made sure that the Biafrans were not going to reach the capital that day.