June 18, 2010 -- Watching international pariah North Korea take the field at the World Cup the other day, we were reminded of a notion nearly as old as the game itself: that soccer not only entertains, it promotes fellowship and harmony, even peace.
That might be difficult to imagine in this country, where the sport (Saturday kids' games notwithstanding) has never evoked the passions it does in other countries. But World Cup soccer – even more than Olympic sport – has been credited with pacifying peoples. Four years ago the rock superstar and activist Bono said the World Cup "closes the schools, closes the shops, closes a city and stops a war."
Many organizations exist to promote this idea. One, "Soccer For World Peace," calls soccer "a vehicle for peace…goal by goal, season by season."
Is that a stretch? Well, you don't have to be a vuvuzela-wielding addict to feel the joy, or catch the fever of the games.
Here in New York, flags and World Cup banners have been draped outside bars and restaurants; the New York Observer carries a helpful map of more than 50 soccer-watching establishments, together with the likely allegiances of patrons. Slovenian fans gathered at an Upper East Side café for Slovenian pastries and their country's opening match with Algeria (the Slovenes won, 1-0); Ghanaians danced on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue after a late, game-winning goal against Serbia; and an English colleague here at ABC had his children paint the white-with-red-cross flag of England in his window (a brave thing, I thought, on the eve of the U.S.-England contest).
So the games bring camaraderie, and joy. But can they really stop wars?
Those who say "yes" make a simple case: This most global of games produces global good feeling, and an outlet for aggression that might otherwise play out in nasty ways. How can you fight, the argument goes, during such a nail-biting, soccer-rich time?
During the World War I Christmas truce in 1914, English and German soldiers left their trenches, found a ball, and played a match. (Germany won). A half-century later, troops in the Biafran war arranged a three-day truce so they could watch Pele, probably the greatest to ever play the game. In 1990, factions in Lebanon took a break from fratricide to watch the World Cup. And today, coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan often arrange games for locals as a way to improve ties and boost security.
The Soccer Star Who Stopped a War
Then there is the story of the center forward who stopped a war.
In 2005, the Ivory Coast star Didier Drogba dropped to his knees on national television, begging warring countrymen to lay down their arms. The national team had just qualified for the World Cup; now Drogba wanted something more. Forget your differences, he pleaded, at least during the global tournament. Ultimately the nation responded, and Drogba had his wish; a five-year civil war had ended. "It was just something I did instinctively," he told a reporter. "All the players hated what was happening to our country and reaching the World Cup was the perfect emotional wave on which to ride." (Today you'll find Ivory Coast back in the tournament, and Drogba playing with a cast on his broken right arm).
Of course others will say sports make fans and athletes more aggressive, not less. Soccer is famous for its hooligan fans and – worse – the occasional acts of reprisal against losing teams.
The Atlantic's Adam Hofstetter, citing an attack on Togo's team and Iran's refusal to meet Israel on the pitch, writes that by adopting the soccer-brings-peace line, "we let our hopes obscure reality."
In 1990, a Serb nationalist named Arkan built a brutal paramilitary force made up primarily of backers of his favorite soccer club; those men were blamed for the butchering of Bosnian and Croatian civilians. And when El Salvador defeated Honduras in a 1969 World Cup qualifier, the result sparked a bloody, 100-hour battle. The conflict actually became known as "The Soccer War." (See journalist Richard Kapuscinski's compelling book by the same title).
Still, when even the most hotly-contested matches end in embrace; when children in America study the flags and habits of Chileans, Danes and Paraguyans; when foreign editors (yes, I'm guilty) catch the three-games-a-day fever, enjoying breaks from war and pestilence; and – back where we began – when those underdog North Koreans swap jerseys after losing by a mere goal to mighty Brazil; well, then you can understand those who say, this game really can mend fences, and ease some pain. Once in a while, it might even change the world.