The World Cup, patriotism and a history of sport

Tensions: Four historical events that brought out the darker side of international sport.

Is sport really a force for good? The 32 countries competing at the World Cup will be spurred on by nationalist sentiment. But many feel sport is the perfect place to express these feelings.

Who will you be supporting at the World Cup?

It is an easy question for many people. English people will support England. Iranians will support Iran. Peruvians will support Peru.

Italy did not qualify, so many Italian football fanatics will not engage too closely with this tournament. Neither did the US, and so millions of Americans will switch their allegiance to the country of their ancestors.

In a globalised world of instant communication, mass immigration and capitalism, the World Cup is something of an anachronism. It splits the world neatly into those age-old divides of country and tribe.

A commonly heard cliché about international sporting tournaments is that they “bring the world together”. The French founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, hoped the Games would increase “friendly understanding among nations” for the good of humanity.

And in many cases, this is true for such events. The vast majority of individual cultural exchanges in Russia will be positive.

But some worry that the World Cup brings out the worst types of nationalism.

They cite the motives behind Russia’s decision to bid for the tournament in the first place. Comparisons have been made with the 1978 World Cup, which was held in Argentina and ended up being a major propaganda victory for Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Sport has always been a tribal affair. At the ancient Olympics in Greece, the athletes competed for the honour and glory of rival city-states, often giving their up lives before admitting defeat. In 420 BC, Spartans were banned for extracurricular fighting.

In more modern times, the 1936 Olympics, hosted in Berlin in Nazi Germany, stand as the supreme example of a politicised sporting event. And in 1969, rioting in a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and Honduras led to a three-day war between the two Central American countries.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the rise of organised sport coincided with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. But is sport a good outlet for those sentiments?

Tribal loyalties

Yes it is, say some. National pride, in the vast majority of cases, is a healthy and inevitable thing. It binds people together and promotes a sense of unity and companionship. And it is much better to let these feelings out in a fundamentally unimportant arena like sport than to express that nationalism in war.

George Orwell disagreed. “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence,” he wrote. The reality of international sport is that it causes resentment and jingoism — an “unfailing cause of ill will”.

You Decide

  1. Is sport a force for good?
  2. Is national pride a force for good?


  1. Write down your own definitions of the terms “patriotism”, “nationalism” and “national pride”. How do your answers compare with those of your classmates and what, if any, are the differences?
  2. Pick one sporting event that led to a conflict between two nations. Give a five minute presentation about it to your class.

Some People Say...

“[Sport] is war minus the shooting.”

George Orwell

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The 32 countries represented at the World Cup will be cheered on by hundreds of millions of fans back home in unashamed displays of patriotism. We know that, throughout history, sport has often trodden a fine line between being a good way to express pride in your town or country and being a vehicle for inflaming tensions between two groups of people.
What do we not know?
To what extent sport is the cause of nationalism and tribal feelings, or simply a consequence. We also do not know whether the scare-stories surrounding the World Cup in Russia (for example, the risk of violence from Russian football fans) will come true, or whether the tournament will actually calm international tensions.

Word Watch

Italy did not qualify
Italy lost a play-off against Sweden. It is the first World Cup for 60 years that the four-time winners will not be competing in.
Neither did the US
The US’s failure to qualify is perhaps even more surprising, given that it has to play teams from North and Central America, who tend to be worse than European teams. A loss to Trinidad and Tobago meant that, for the first time since 1986, there will be no American representation at the World Cup.
Argentina’s military dictatorship
Two years before the World Cup, Argentina suffered a military coup. Thousands of people disappeared in the years after. Some countries, particularly the Netherlands (which ended up losing the final to Argentina), considered boycotting the tournament.
1936 Olympics
This came shortly after the 1934 World Cup, which was held in Italy under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. Both Hitler and Mussolini saw the events as good platforms from which to promote their message.
Extreme patriotism, in the form of aggressive foreign policy.

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