More than ‘Just a Game’: Sport Turns into Ultimate Political Football

It’s not often that sport becomes the stuff of diplomatic disputes. But two highly controversial World Cup qualifying matches have pushed football into the global headlines this week. Algeria and Egypt find themselves embroiled in a serious spat while the Irish government complained to Paris.

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. …. I can assure them it is much more serious than that,” the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once famously said.’

That has become more than apparent this week as entire nations seethe with anger and resentment after two highly controversial qualifying matches for next year’s World Cup in South Africa. So intense are the feelings that the coverage of the games has leapt from the sports sections to become front page news. And governments in both Europe and North Africa have been quick to jump on the football bandwagon as a welcome respite from economic and political problems at home.

While the controversy over the match between Ireland and France was based on an incident on the pitch, with Thierry Henry’s blatant handball sending Les Bleus through, the spat between Egypt and Algeria has centered on violent incidents off the pitch. The huge outcry in Ireland has prompted the government to call for a replay of the game and the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has even taken up the issue with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Meanwhile France’s former colony Algeria is in the midst of a bitter diplomatic feud with Egypt over fan hooliganism. Algeria qualified for the World Cup finals on Wednesday night by beating the Egyptians 1-0. The play-off game had been necessary after a late win by Egypt on Saturday in Cairo had put the two countries level at the top of their group.

National Pride

Anger has mounted in Egypt in response to reports of attacks on Egyptian fans after Wednesday’s match, which was played in neighboring Sudan. On Thursday night and again on Friday morning protestors gathered at the Algerian embassy in Cairo, hurling stones and firebombs at police and burning Algerian flags.

Egypt recalled its ambassador from Algeria on Thursday for consultations and summoned the Algerian envoy Abdelkader Hadjar in Cairo to protest the attacks. It was the second such summons for Hadjar in a week. He had been called in last week after Algerian fans attacked Egyptian businesses and homes in Algiers following the Pharaohs win on Saturday.

Tensions had been mounting after the Algerian team bus had come under attack before the match in Cairo — an incident that the world football regulating body FIFA is now investigating.

Algeria, the country that claims former French captain Zinedine Zidane as its favorite son, has been in a frenzy of football fever as it tried to qualify for the finals. The huge North African country, with a population of 34 million, was last in the World Cup in 1986 shortly before it descended into a bloody civil war between Islamists and the government that claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people. Now the country is jubilant that the world’s attention will be focused on something other than its strife and suffering. “Algeria is not terrorism, illegal immigration and social misery,” rejoiced the Soir d’Algerie newspaper on Thursday. “It is finally a country which can haul itself up among the ranks of the great nations of the world.”

This is expression of pride is part of the territory with football. “The World Cup is the tournament by which most countries measure themselves,” says Alan Bairner, an expert in sport and national identity at Loughborough University in the UK.

“It is the most visible way nations are respresented on the global stage,” he says. And qualifying for the World Cup means Algeria has “arrived.” He points out that it is very significant that many French-born players of Algerian descent are now deciding to play for Algeria. It is part of a new self confidence, whereby countries move “beyond the colonial situation.”

Of course this football-fuelled national pride is helping to distract from pressing problems. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been facing social unrest over a slew of problems from high unemployment to rising food prices and the qualification is likely to deflect from that for a while. Nacer Jabi, a sociologist at Algiers University told Reuters that “for a brief time, in the moment of victory and euphoria, the people will forget their problems.”

That is not something that can be said for Ireland’s disappointed football fans. As the country faces severe spending cuts in the forthcoming budget, suffers spiralling unemployment and is being forced to swallow a deeply unpopular bank bailout, the Dublin government would have been forgiven for hoping that Irish pride could shine in South Africa next June and deflect some attention from Ireland’s economic woes. “Ireland is in the depths of economic crisis,” says Barnier. “And qualifying would have been the major boost the country needs.”

Irish Eyes Not Smiling

Then came Henry’s Main de Dieu. The Irish side may have put on the better performance on Wednesday night but when the French captain controlled the ball twice with his hand before kicking it to William Gallas for the goal, Hibernian hopes were shattered. The fury that has been vented since has seen Thierry Henry become the most vilified figure in world sport. The Facebook group “We Hate Thierry Henry” has tens of thousands of fans and the French sportsman became one of the top themes on social networking site Twitter on Thursday.

Inevitably, conspiracy theories are already making the rounds. Some accused FIFA of trying to ensure that as a small country Ireland would be at a disadvantage compared to France, a country of 65 million, who were winners of the World Cup in 1998 and runners up in 2006. FIFA changed the rules for the play-off draw with teams seeded according to world ranking in an effort to make sure that big countries didn’t knock each other out.

The Irish government wasted little time in weighing in on the escalating row over Henry’s handball. The incident was discussed in the Irish parliament on Thursday and Minister for Sport Martin Cullen wrote to FIFA President Sepp Blatter urging him to call a rematch, while Prime Minister Cowen raised the matter with Sarkozy on the fringes of Thursday night’s EU summit. Sarkozy expressed his sympathy with the Irish plight but refused to get dragged into the controversy. “Don’t ask me to substitute myself for the referee, or the French football authorities, or the European football authorities: leave me right where I am,” he said.

Nevertheless, any glimmer of hope that the match might be replayed in the face of the massive public outcry has been dashed. On Friday FIFA issues a statement saying “The match cannot be changed and the match cannot be replayed. … Decisions are taken by the referee and these decisions are final.”

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International:,1518,662438,00.html

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